Women in STEM: Where does the gender gap begin?

By GIRLWITHABOOK Intern, Rosie Vita

It’s one of the most talked about subjects when it comes to girls’ education in the United States, and a persistent reminder that the Glass Ceiling is not yet a story of old. While women have made strides in the last century, fifty years, even twenty years in terms of gender parity, the percentage of women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) career paths still hovers below 25% according to the U.S. Department of Education. Why does this gap between men and women exist?

Let’s start with this: it’s not because of their biology that women are unlikely to go into STEM. It’s not because they naturally prefer the humanities, that they aren’t interested, or that they are intellectually incapable of keeping up with their male counterparts. In fact, women and girls show an equal propensity to boys and men in STEM fields from a young age. According to the Department of Education, girls begin taking higher-level math classes earlier than boys. They’re also passing those classes at higher rates than boys. There is also almost complete gender parity in high school and Advanced Placement science and math classes. Women also are earning 41% of STEM PhDs—while not completely equal it’s still a lot higher than 25%. So then why does this gender parity that we’ve seen from elementary school through post-secondary education suddenly fly out the window when it comes to careers?

Looking back on my own educational career, it’s hard to pinpoint why I ended up straying away from the STEM fields. When I was very young I wanted to be an inventor, and my kindergarten yearbook states that my favorite subject was math. Somewhere along the way I lost that love of math and science and came to see it as a necessary evil. What changed for me? That’s a hard, if not impossible, question to answer. I showed an aptitude for language arts from a young age, and was always a strong reader and writer. By the time I entered high school my favorite subjects were English and History, and I while I was still in the advanced math and science classes I didn’t necessary excel at them. I’m very fortunate that I never had anyone tell me that because I’m a girl that I couldn’t study certain fields, but I did feel subtle discouragement from pursuing STEM more seriously despite always maintaining good grades in those classes. I remember feeling that because I wasn’t the top of the class and pulling perfect scores on the exams that they held no future for me. I always felt much more encouragement from my humanities teachers, and not so much from my science and math teachers. Once I entered my freshman year of college, I had completely ruled out those fields as possible career moves. Looking back I can’t separate my own aptitude and motivations from a possible lack of encouragement; the lines of separation are too hazy. This may be the same story for a lot of girls, making the answer to this question of women in STEM much more complicated to answer.

There are many ongoing debates about this and none are conclusive. Some argue that women are socialized from a young age to believe they cannot succeed in STEM fields, or that these fields are unsuitable for girls, and so focus their attentions to more “traditional” female subjects and career paths. Another explanation is that, thanks to traditional gender roles, women tend to choose careers that are more favorable to raising children—something that STEM fields aren’t known for. Others argue that there isn’t a problem—women just don’t like STEM (unfortunately for them, the numbers are not on their side). Never the less, it’s a problem with out a clear-cut answer, as shown through my own experience and many others, and therefore finding solutions will be more challenging.

That leaves us back where we started, with women still hovering below that 25% mark. Why should we care? Women are dropping out of STEM at some point between the educational track and their professional careers at alarming rates. Clearly there is a divide, and as a society we should be questioning: whom are we losing? What could these women have accomplished had they entered STEM jobs? If the answer is stereotypes and family planning, then these are issues that must be addressed. Not only must girls be supported and encouraged throughout their education, but women must also be supported in the workplace. Gender should not be an obstacle to success, whether that means encouragement in the classroom or the ability to have children without it ending your career. We never know who might hold the answer to our world’s biggest questions…and they may well be women.

Source: Gender Equity in Education: A Data Snapshot. U.S. Department of Education, 2012. Digital.