The STEM Gender Gap

The number of girls and women studying the sciences has steadily increased each year, but there is still a gender gap in higher education and the work force. Researchers Andresse St. Rose and Catherine Riegle-Crumb and Linda Kekelis, executive director of Techbridge, discuss the social and environmental factors that contribute to this disparity.

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FLORA LICHTMAN, HOST:

This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Flora Lichtman. It's been over 40 years since Title XI passed and you might recognize it for opening up sports teams to women. But it was also meant to equalize education programs for boys and girls, including the STEM field - science, technology, engineering and math. But how far have we come since then?

Well, among college grads, men outnumber women in nearly every science and engineering major, according to a report by the American Association of University Women. Women make up less than a quarter of all the STEM workforce in the U.S., according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. And in some fields of engineering, the percentage of women drops to the single digits, says the U.S. Department of Labor.

Now, if you work in the sciences, these statistics may not surprise you, but the question we're talking about today is why. If more and more girls are taking science in school, why aren't we seeing the same increase of women in the science workforce? We want to hear from you. Were you encouraged to do science as a kid? And do you think that the girls or boys around you were treated differently in science class or in school? Were you interested in science as a young girl but decided not to pursue it? Or maybe you decided to pursue it. Why? Give us a call, 1-800-989-8255. 1-800-989-TALK.

Now, let me introduce my guests. Catherine Riegle-Crumb is an associate professor of STEM education at the University of Texas at Austin and she joins us today by phone. Welcome to the show.

CATHERINE RIEGLE-CRUMB: Thank you very much.

LICHTMAN: Andresse St. Rose is a senior researcher at the American Association of University Women and a coauthor of the report "Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Science." She joins us from the NPR studio in Washington, D.C.

ANDRESSE ST. ROSE: Thank you for having me.

LICHTMAN: Thanks for joining us. And Linda Kekelis is the executive director of Techbridge in Oakland, California, and she joins us by phone. Welcome to the show.

LINDA KEKELIS: Thanks so much for this opportunity, Flora.

LICHTMAN: Andresse St. Rose, start us off with sort of the big picture here. What's the situation? How do the numbers of women studying science today compare to men studying science?

ROSE: Sure, absolutely. And when we look at the numbers, really what we see are some really positive and important patterns of improvement. So for instance, when we look at high school preparation in math and science, and that's so important for students who want to go on to college and declare a STEM major. In 2009, which is the most recent data that we have available, both male and female high school students were taking the same number of credits on average in math and science. And more importantly, they were taking more credits than they did 20 years ago.

So in 1990, for instance, students were taking about six credits on average in math and science, and boys actually took slightly more credits than girls did. But over the last 20 years or so, again, all of our students in high school are taking more credits and they're actually earning better grades. So today we actually see them taking the same number of credits, which is about 7.4 credits in math and science overall. And each of those credits represents about 120 hours of instruction.

So that's all good that our students are getting more exposure to science and math in high school and they're taking a range of courses.

LICHTMAN: But then what happened? Something happened.

ROSE: So absolutely something happens and where we see that gap develop is in that transition from high school to college. So when we asked students, when first-year college students are surveyed and said, what are you thinking about majoring in, only about 19 percent of first-year college women said a STEM field, compared to about 35 percent of college men. And this is from like 2010. And for women the most popular STEM major was biology, whereas for men the most popular major was engineering. And so that's where we see this big drop-off and that really deserves more attention.

LICHTMAN: So STEM, we're talking about science, technology, engineering and math. And, Catherine Riegel-Crumb, how do we know that this isn't just about interest, that girls lose interest in science?

RIEGLE-CRUMB: Absolutely. Well, I think that is part of it. Part of it is an issue of lower interest. And so as Andresse was just saying, obviously in terms of the courses that students are taking overall and the kinds of skills that they are obtaining during the K to 12 pipeline, girls are as prepared as boys on average to pursue these fields. And so the question then becomes, of course, as you raised, why don't we see that happen when they enter college? Why do they choose to enter other majors and so much less likely to go into the physical sciences and engineering?

But when we say that girls have a lack of interest, we need to be careful because then it sort of becomes this argument, well, they're just not interested and we can't force people to be interested. And of course we want people to do what they're interested in, right? That sounds like something that everyone can kind of get behind.

LICHTMAN: Right.

RIEGLE-CRUMB: The question then becomes why aren't they interested and what has happened in the, say, 18 years prior to entrance into college that has led to girls developing lower interest than boys? And so I think that the sociological and the psychological literature on this is pretty clear in terms of all kinds of subtle discouragement that happens where girls from very early ages, beginning at the end of elementary school or even before, start to disidentify with science and math, start to feel that these fields are not things that they find to be interesting, that they find to be exciting. They don't necessarily see them as relevant.

And so it's really about the kinds of messages that girls are receiving and the kinds of experiences that they're having which lead them to develop lower interest despite the fact that they have strong skills and the ability to succeed in these fields.

LICHTMAN: I want to talk specifically about what that might mean, but let's first go to Linda Kekelis. You're the executive director at Techbridge, which is sort of on the ground trying to tackle some of these issues. Tell us what you do there.

KEKELIS: Sure. We're a nonprofit with a mission to inspire girls to change the world through STEM. And we are so close to opportunities, you know, with our tech giants in the Silicon Valley and biotech startups in San Francisco, but we knew that many of the girls in our community would never make their way there without encouragement or extra opportunities.

So we started by going to girls in our community to ask them what sort of program would inspire them to want to maintain an interest in STEM and want to consider going into it as a career, and with their input designed the program Techbridge, with support from the National Science Foundation. So we heard from the girls that they wanted to do hands-on projects and wanted to do the kind of things that their brothers were doing outside of school, like building and tinkering.

You know, their brothers were getting the Legos and K'NEX to build things with. And parents weren't thinking that their daughters would like those sorts of opportunities. They also talked about the fact that they wanted a space for just girls to be able to feel like it was a safe place to explore science and engineering, to not get teased, to not feel that it was something that girls couldn't do. So we support girls with projects.

But what we also heard from them was that they saw these activities as really fun and engaging but more as a hobby and not as something that would connect with a career. So we've worked with role models who come and meet with the girls, as well as open their doors at their universities or corporations so that girls can meet role models and see technology and science in action. And I think that's been really critical for our girls to see.

You know, they want to make the world a better place and they're able to see role models in jobs that resonate with that and would allow them to be able to do that.

LICHTMAN: Yeah, and Catherine Riegle-Crumb, you've done research on just this thing, right, that role models really do make a difference.

RIEGLE-CRUMB: Absolutely. That's right. So we have a study that just came out looking at this type of issue and looking at physics course-taking in high school across the country. And so while it's true that girls across the country are taking as many science credits as boys, they are less likely to take physics on average. And so they'll often take Biology II, anatomy course or something that is an advanced science, and not take physics.

And so what we looked at was the variation in that trend across the U.S. and looking to see whether in some schools girls take physics as much as boys, and in fact take physics at higher rates than boys. So that average, that national average of girls being less likely sort of hides this variation that there are many places where girls are taking physics as much as boys or more than boys. And what we found in terms of what that was related to was the percent of women in the community that were employed in STEM occupations.

And so the more women in the community that were working in these fields, the more likely girls were to go on and take physics in high school and then oftentimes take physics at higher rates than boys.

LICHTMAN: And you looked at other factors too, right? And this was the sort of resounding answer. You looked at, right, if it was an urban school...

RIEGLE-CRUMB: Sure. We wanted to make sure that what we were really piecing out was something about these STEM role models in the community. And so we were able to account for other characteristics of the communities to make sure that it wasn't about, well, in urban communities or in communities with just lots of kinds of resources, educational resources or lots of financial resources, that it wasn't about just being a high-income or high-status area or about it being a certain kind of school, but that it really was about the STEM occupations in the community and the presence of women in those occupations appears to have a bleed-over effect in to what happens in school.

LICHTMAN: Let's go to the phone. Frank in Blue Island, Illinois, you're on SCIENCE FRIDAY.

FRANK: Hi, yeah. We have a program in our school where we try to encourage - I'm a teacher. My name is Frank Polomo(ph). We try to encourage the kids to at least apply. The purpose of the program is to have the kids apply to engineering schools. And as I said - as I was talking to your moderator, we find that the girls lose interest between the middle school and senior year in high school for the hard math and the hard physics courses.

LICHTMAN: Hmm.

FRANK: And I was wondering if you guys can comment. I'm just telling you that I have had experience with that. We're working with Eisenhower High School and Veterans Memorial Middle School here in South Cook County.

LICHTMAN: Andresse St. Rose, does that square up with your data?

ROSE: Sure. You know, we see that pattern a lot, where late adolescence - so, you know, Frank is correct that transition from middle school to high school, or by the end of high school - we see girls start to exit the STEM, you know, pathway. And really, there, what we know is that in school, they're receiving really powerful messages at that age.

Stereotypes - you know, the most popular stereotype being probably that boys are better at math than girls, and that science and math fields are men's jobs. And so when girls are constantly bombarded with these messages from various sources - I mean, just a couple weeks ago we had the Children's Place t-shirt controversy where the, you know, the girls' t-shirt said: My best subjects are, like, dancing and, I forget, music and math, and math was the only box that wasn't checked.

And so all those influences - again, like Catherine was saying earlier, that girls receive various messages that all layer to discourage them from pursuing STEM, perhaps. And that late adolescence period is a time when they receive many of those messages, unfortunately.

LICHTMAN: You know, I read an article - thanks for calling, Frank.

FRANK: You're welcome.

LICHTMAN: I read an article about a science test that was given in 65 countries, and it found that among a representative sample of 15-year-olds around the world, girls generally outperformed boys in science, but not here in the U.S. In our country, boys outperformed girls by one of the biggest margins in the world. And I was wondering if anyone here can tell me why that is. Are we - is something different about the U.S.? Oh, my, crickets.

(LAUGHTER)

KEKELIS: Something that does happen is boys have more informal opportunities outside of school to be able to explore science and ask questions and do investigations, whether it's in after school or summer programs, or even just some of the projects that they work on at home sometimes with parents that give them a chance to really dig deep into the subject area, and also to work through challenges. So to find out, you know, when something doesn't go right the first time, that they persevere and keep on working towards it, which helps them build the skills around science and math that sometimes girls don't do or haven't been encouraged to do as much.

LICHTMAN: You're listening...

KEKELIS: Not that they can't.

LICHTMAN: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY, on NPR. Sorry, I interrupted the last part of your sentence.

KEKELIS: And it's not that girls can't do it, but they might not have been encouraged or thought that they could do it. So I think for parents or teachers to really, you know, provide that encouragement and give girls opportunities to work on things that are really hard, and we've heard from our girls in Techbridge while they're in the moment and they might think this is really hard and horrible, they appreciate it after the fact that they, you know, have gotten through a struggle and developed that grit and perseverance that helps them do something that they feel proud of in the moment.

But also later on, when they're taking an advanced math class in high school or in that really challenging engineering program in college, they've got the confidence and the experience to know that they will just kind of work through and push through the hard times.

LICHTMAN: Let's go to the phones. Christina in Raleigh, North Carolina. You're on SCIENCE FRIDAY.

CHRISTINA: Hi. Thank you. I just wanted to say that I am a graduate at Appalachian State. I majored in psychology. I went into my undergrad thinking that I knew I wanted to go into a helping field, and then eventually fell in love with biology. But unfortunately, I had grown up thinking I wasn't good enough in math to conquer any science class.

So I think that was just a reinforcement that I received, just like your previous person was saying, that no one really pushed me in my math classes. No one really pushed me and said, you know, you can actually do this, and it's not as hard as you think. So I just grew up with this mentality that it was too hard for me and I was going to do something that was more suited to my caring personality. So...

LICHTMAN: Well, it sounds like you've maybe changed your mind on that, like that - you don't think of yourself that way anymore. What happened?

CHRISTINA: It actually recently changed. I've been studying for the MCAT, and I realized I had to do a big upheaval of my self-confidence. I was doubting myself while I was studying, and it was really hurting me. And I just came face to face with myself and said, you know what? You can do this. You're good enough. You're going to get a good score. And I think sometimes the people in girls' lives, they have to be the ones that say that.

Because I don't think that it should take for them studying for the MCAT and they realize, hey, I can actually do this. I've gotten this far. It's doable. So, yeah.

LICHTMAN: Thanks. Thanks for sharing that story.

CHRISTINA: Yeah. Not a problem. Thank you.

KEKELIS: I also think role models can help share a story that resonates with what Christina's just said, because our girls will think, like, oh, you know, if you're an engineer, you have to be super smart. You had to get straight A's through, you know, middle school and high school. And some of our role models will say, you know what? I really struggled and I wasn't the smartest in my class, and it's been hard for me, but I worked at it and now I'm successful as an engineer.

So I think for girls to know that, you know, you don't have to be the super-brainiac to be successful in a career in STEM is important.

LICHTMAN: And that you can - that maybe you are the super-brainiac, too.

KEKELIS: Mm-hmm.

LICHTMAN: We're talking about girls in science, and we're going to talk lots more about it when we come back with my guests Catherine Riegle-Crumb, Andresse St. Rose, and Linda Kekelis. Stay with us, and give us a ring. Tell us about your experience. 1-800-989-TALK. 1-800-989-8255. Don't go away.

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LICHTMAN: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR.

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LICHTMAN: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Flora Lichtman. This hour, we're talking about girls and women in science with my guests Catherine Riegle-Crumb, who's an associate professor of STEM education at the University of Texas at Austin, and Andresse St. Rose, a senior researcher at the American Association of University Women, and Linda Kekelis, the executive director of Techbridge in Oakland, California.

And I want to go right back to the phones, because they are blinking. Stephanie - sorry, Jessica in Cincinnati, tell us your story.

JESSICA: Yes. Yes. I am a mechanical engineer by degree, and I worked for a couple of major corporations before having children, and I quit my job in order to stay home with our daughter for the first year. And she is now four. Because I have yet to find a situation where I could work part-time and utilize my skills in the right way and have childcare.

LICHTMAN: Yeah. Childcare seems to be a big issue, Andresse St. Rose. Is that what you've found?

ROSE: In Why So Few, we didn't look at the issue of childcare, but we certainly looked at women in STEM workplaces. And we know that, right, all flexible workplaces have both men and women and flex policy. So things like having part-time options, but absolutely having childcare available. And actually, we just released a research report more recently that looked at women in community colleges in STEM, but also how important childcare is available for women in community colleges.

And so we know that the issue of work-life balance and being able to pursue a STEM career, which we definitely want to see women in, really also takes - you know, we also need to look at what's happening in the home and, you know, where women need support. So it's not just about getting more girls in math and science, but it's also looking at colleges and universities and, again, at what happens in the workplace.

LICHTMAN: Jessica, I think mechanical engineering, I think I read, has one of the lowest percentages of women in the STEM fields. It's under 10 percent, I think, if I remember correctly.

JESSICA: It is. And most often - very often, I was the only girl in a class. So I've been the only girl in my groups at work. And so it's very difficult to say, no, I'm not going to go to China for three weeks because I have children at home, when you're the only one in the group that has issue.

LICHTMAN: Right. Well, thank you for calling and telling us about that. Let's go to Erin in Ambler, PA.

ERIN: Hi. Yes. I went to a small, all-girls school for high school. and while they did offer physics classes, I actually did in freshman year, when it came senior year, for the all-important AP classes, I signed up for physics and calculus. My father was an engineer, and I've always enjoyed math and sciences, and there wasn't enough enrollment. So they ended up dropping those classes.

And I was forced, just to have an AP on my transcript, I had to sign up for psychology and statistics - which, you know, weren't awful, but I ended up going to college sort of feeling lost and ended up taking communications classes, and eventually ended up dropping out. But then I went back to school, actually, at a community college, and got into their engineering program there. And I've been - I just took a break. I just had a daughter.

(SOUNDBITE OF BABY FUSSING)

LICHTMAN: We can hear her, I think.

(LAUGHTER)

ERIN: She thinks she's not getting enough attention right now, you know. So I'm taking a break from studies right now to raise her for about a year, and then I hope to pursue an engineering degree.

LICHTMAN: Thanks for calling.

ERIN: You're welcome.

LICHTMAN: Dr. Riegle-Crumb, have you looked at whether girls are actually treated differently in the classroom?

RIEGLE-CRUMB: Well, that's a great question, and it's something that we're definitely interested in, and looking at. And we do have a study that looks at math classrooms across the country using national data, and looks at how high school math teachers rate the ability of their students.

And so what we found in that was even though girls had comparable test scores to boys and had actually higher grades, as was mentioned earlier, higher grades in math and science than boys, that teachers were more likely to rate the class as easy for the boys and as more difficult for the girls.

And so I think there definitely is still evidence that, despite all the progress that's been made, that the stereotypes about ability, the stereotypes about boys being better at math and science than girls, are still there, and they do absolutely infiltrate the classroom, and they do affect how teachers perceive their students and how girls think about themselves.

LICHTMAN: That's where we have to leave it today. Thank you all for taking time to join us.

RIEGLE-CRUMB: Absolutely. Thank you.

ROSE: Thank you for having me.

KEKELIS: Thank you so much.

LICHTMAN: Catherine Riegle-Crumb is an associate professor of STEM education at the University of Texas at Austin. Andresse St. Rose is senior researcher at the American Association of University Women, and Linda Kekelis is the executive director of Techbridge in Oakland, California.

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