The University of Texas at Austin
  • Where the Girls Aren’t

    By Kay Randall, College of Education
    Published: April 8, 2013

    two young women working in a science lab

    [Photo by Marsha Miller]

    Lack of math and science skills isn’t the reason few females choose STEM majors

    Girls are not avoiding STEM majors and professions because they lack academic preparation or sufficient skills, according to a study from the College of Education.

    The study is one of only a few to offer a thorough, critical assessment of nationally representative data on STEM — which stands for science, technology, engineering and math — skills attainment in high school and subsequent choice of major, broken down by gender. The acronym has become commonplace over the past 20 years as education and corporate leaders have expressed concern over a lack of qualified workers to fill the increasing number of STEM-related jobs.

    Catherine Riegle-Crumb, assistant professor in the College of Education’s Department of Curriculum & Instruction

    Catherine Riegle-Crumb

    “Despite a dearth of empirical evidence, the belief doggedly persists that females don’t go into STEM majors and professions because they’ve received inadequate academic preparation or are incapable of mastering science and math material,” said Catherine Riegle-Crumb, assistant professor in the College of Education’s Department of Curriculum and Instruction and lead investigator for the study. “This research shows that that clearly isn’t the case and suggests that it’s time for scholars to investigate more promising avenues of inquiry.”

    For the study, researchers looked at data from three nationally representative cohorts of college matriculates (the High School and Beyond Study, National Education Longitudinal Study and the Educational Longitudinal Study) that span the past three decades.

    They examined multiple indicators of high school math and science achievement, focusing on students who later majored in math, physical science, engineering and computer science. Physical sciences and engineering were areas of special interest since those are majors in which gender disparities are the greatest.

    Data indicated that students who were at the top of the test score distribution in high school math and science were most likely to decide on a STEM major. In this top tier of scores, male students did predominate, but, according to Riegle-Crumb, this advantage was in no way sufficient to explain their subsequent over-representation in physical science, engineering and computer science majors in college.

    “When we looked at relative strengths between subjects rather than absolute levels of achievement, we noted that girls tended to outperform boys in English courses, for example, and to be the top scorers,” said Riegle-Crumb. “It’s not that they did poorly in high school math and science classes — it’s that they did even better in English and have a comparative advantage.

    “It’s important to emphasize that analyses of these large national data sets indicate that regardless of how we define or measure achievement in high school, the relatively small disparities between males and females found across all three cohorts does little to explain why so few females choose STEM majors. And this difference remains robust over time.”

    Riegle-Crumb suggested that too much of the prior research on gender inequality in math and science exaggerates, or at least mis-specifies, the consequences of small gender differences on certain measures of achievement during primary and secondary schools. In doing so, the research may be inadvertently perpetuating gender stereotypes.

    “I think we instead need to be asking, ‘What do females who are highly qualified in math and science find more attractive in the fields of study they choose, and, more importantly, why are these features more attractive to them,’” said Riegle-Crumb. “Females are making a choice for something, not just against STEM majors and professions.

    “These choices could be due to social structures that are pervasive and lifelong and that are shaping their preferences and ideas about what girls do versus what boys do,” Riegle-Crumb added. “One of the most fascinating questions to answer is why and how some females resist cultural expectations and do pursue degrees in engineering.”

    In addition to Riegle-Crumb the research team included sociology professor Chandra Muller, Florida International University assistant professor Barbara King, and University of Wisconsin-Madison professor Eric Grodsky. The study was published in the American Educational Research Journal.

    This article first appeared on the College of Education’s Newsroom.

    • Quote 2
      Kylie said on April 17, 2013 at 8:55 p.m.
      I agree, there is an overall shortage of those pursuing STEM majors, and everyone, regardless of gender, should be encouraged to pursue these fields. However, the idea that women don't pursue these fields because they "don't think that way" is completely over-generalized and inaccurate. The fact is, it is hard to tell the extent to what factors influence the choices people make for their career choices. What we do know (as evident by this study) is that women often succeed in the humanities and our cultural influence validates this success. What I feel many forget to realize is that success in the humanities can also lead to greater success in stem careers as well. In general, I feel that women aren't pursuing these majors because they don't know they can so wildly succeed. As a female in computer science, I have seen so many intimidated by the fact that they don't know how to code something yet. All of these fears are a product of our culture, and you know what - I'm ready for us to realize women are just as competent and successful in STEM careers if they so choose to pursue it, so why not promote a culture supportive and encouraging of women pursuing STEM careers.
    • Quote 2
      Emily said on April 16, 2013 at 12:41 a.m.
      Oh, I dream of attending this school to pursue a STEM major (as a female). Apps are soon. Here's hoping.
    • Quote 2
      Michael said on April 15, 2013 at 3:16 p.m.
      Could it be that females and males come "hard-wired" with tendencies toward certain interests? If true, social programming would have limited effect on people choosing careers other than the those they enjoy doing. There are programs in schools and colleges encouraging girls toward STEM, yet nothing exclusively for boys. We should strive for equal opportunity; however, with females outpacing males for college slots, we seemingly encourage boys with little more than "don't snooze".
    • Quote 2
      Travis said on April 15, 2013 at 10:31 a.m.
      Perhaps women are generally smarter than men and realize that majoring in business is easier and leads to better job opportunities. Such is the sad state of our great nation.
    • Quote 2
      Luis M. said on April 15, 2013 at 9:22 a.m.
      It is evident by inspection that women are under-represented in STEM majors. We can all speculate on the reasons, however intangible they may be. But in this marked wave of gender equality in schools, in work, and in society over the past 50 years, the avenues for equality have already been opened for whoever wants to take them. As a husband to a woman in STEM and a father to a daughter, I could not be more certain of the open opportunities for them to pursue STEM careers. But what's it going to take to increase the number of women? Our wonderful market economy and its self-correcting dynamics... The insatiable demand for STEM talent endured through the economic downturn. Colleges are trying to meet the demand by growing their STEM programs, and high schools by preparing the students. If you survey US colleges' academic infrastructure growth, it's in STEM and not Liberal Arts. Even some historical liberal arts colleges are warning their incoming freshmen about the gloomy outlooks of their degrees. Salary comparisons for STEM graduates versus Liberal Arts graduates are well known and frequently published on popular news outlets. Women are now, thankfully, more independent and resilient. Women are smart and they are quickly learning that a degree in STEM (and quantitative business) is a near guarantee to a stable financial future. Women are becoming equal or even greater contributors to their households compared to men; women are rising in corporate positions, academic ranks, and political posts. It is us, the men, who must not snooze, because after all, our markets are self correcting and they move too fast for snoozers.
    • Quote 2
      Emily said on April 15, 2013 at 1:05 a.m.
      I object to the use of the term "girls" in the article to describe women who are seeking degrees. College-age males are described as "males", not boys, for a reason. Infantilization of the female gender has detrimental effects upon the reader, and is harmful when the article is trying to propagate female career acceleration.
    • Quote 2
      e said on April 14, 2013 at 5:11 a.m.
      I object to the use of the term "girls" in the article title. Young women in college are NOT girls; they're young women. Initialization of an entire gender is detrimental to how we view it.
    • Quote 2
      David said on April 13, 2013 at 1:02 p.m.
      This under representation of females in STEM is overemphasized in my opinion. As long as everyone is treated the same and is judged based on talent and results, it shouldn't matter if there are more males than females. After all, why do you want it to be 50/50? Why is that the right proportion? If males and females have different interests and talents, so be it! What's the problem?
    • Quote 2
      Dr T said on April 13, 2013 at 8:35 a.m.
      How about because girls are not encouraged to go into them and rarely have women role models in those areas presented to them? Girls are often pushed towards education, humanities and social science majors--and there they have plenty of women professors to mentor them. In high schools, if girls trend towards the STEM subjects, they are called nerds, are perceived as being weird and have few women mentors, if any. The results of this study, whatever they are, are not surprising and shouldn't be to anyone. We've been hearing this for decades now and little is changing. Maybe the studies should stop and energy should be focused on encouraging capable girls into these subjects.
    • Quote 2
      Roxanne Bruce-Beltran said on April 13, 2013 at 8:19 a.m.
      I am so excited about the findings in this article! This is what my thesis is about... Thanks for the wonderful information I can now cite and use to back up my theories. Awesome!!!
    • Quote 2
      John said on April 12, 2013 at 2:07 p.m.
      I can't help but think that most of the men that are apt in both the humanities and STEM choose to major in the STEM field because it's practical. No point in risking four years of your life and possibly thousands of dollars in debt with a degree that has very little job prospects. Men also seem to do better when there's a rigid set of rules in the courses they take; your answer is either correct or incorrect. Start adding subjective variables and it feels like a waste of time, as it's more about pleasing the grader rather than arriving at a correct conclusion. Women for the most part don't think that way in choosing their major. They'd rather have a more enjoyable college experience by studying something that interests them. And guess what, STEM isn't something that usually interests them. You can push more of them into the STEM field by citing examples of how most of the cases (not all) where a college grad winds up flipping burgers or serving coffee usually had a degree that was not in demand by the job market. Let's say you can find an effective method to bring more women into the STEM majors. You then might have a problem of a high dropout rate amongst women in STEM because of the lack of interest and free time, and money will again be wasted on studies that will try to find out why they don't stay in those majors. Bottom line: this trend isn't changing unless the STEM courses are taught like the humanities, which doesn't seem possible.
    • Quote 2
      Helen said on April 11, 2013 at 3:47 p.m.
      If there is an overall shortage of STEM majors, perhaps you've been working too hard to get the women into them, and neglecting men who could and might like to do the work, if they didn't think there was a bias against them from the start? "Equality" will arrive when people are treated according to ability and their own efforts.
    • Quote 2
      Christy said on April 9, 2013 at 1:50 p.m.
      I like that thought a lot, and think it's good to encourage males to explore other areas -- but at the same time, we could then up with *no one* wanting persue a degree in STEM fields!
    • Quote 2
      Jamie Aprile said on April 8, 2013 at 3:30 p.m.
      Perhaps the whole issue should be turned on its head. Maybe males are making choices against non-STEM majors and professions for social reasons? Maybe we've been looking at the wrong gender stereotypes.
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