Declining Female Interest in STEM Fields

In the most recent years, the gender gap in STEM interest has been increasing.

The other day, I was sitting in a coffee shop surrounded by papers with equations scribbled all over them. Believe me, I wasn’t pretending to be a savant for the world’s attention. I went to a public place so that I would stop saying aloud “Ugh, you moron, you don’t know any of this.”

To my surprise, a woman stopped me on her way out and asked if I was majoring in math. I looked up and responded with a hint of defeat that I was trying to study engineering. Then I asked if she had previously studied math.

She responded that she had, and then proceeded to tell me about all of the different options it gave her, and about the different jobs she had which finally led her to the marketing of accessories (she pointed to a purse she had with her). We had a short discussion about all of the opportunities that having a background in math and science offers you. It doesn’t force you into one single career; it opens a road to opportunity.

Yet, in the United States, it seems we are still stuck in the belief that math is hard, or that it is reserved for only the smartest students. Believe me, you don’t have to be a genius to learn processes that go with math and science.

Pursuing an education in STEM doesn’t shovel you into a basement corner where you have to sit and endlessly pump out math equations, or drink coffee and write computer code all day. STEM fields teach you a way of thinking. Of course, there are engineers who will go into “hard-core” engineering, just as there are English majors who will devote their lives to researching a single form of literature from a very specific time period and geographic location. Certainly, there are people who have specific passions and talents in life, and pursue education based on this. There is nothing wrong with that.

However, many people want an education leading to a career of sorts that contributes to the world in a positive way and provides a stable income. My concern is that young women are being discouraged from educational paths that provide this because they are mislead about what studying the sciences or engineering entails.

The Interest in STEM Fields

Below is a plot of male versus female interest in STEM fields. You can see the whole report here.

The gap in STEM interest between high school freshmen males and females has been increasing.

Seeing that the overall interest in STEM has been increasing makes me incredibly happy. It is wonderful that students are becoming more interested in STEM fields. Many new and upcoming jobs have some component of science or engineering. Just look at how often we use computers and modern technology outside of what is considered “the engineering world.”

What is disappointing is that female interest in STEM fields has been declining since the class of 2010. In fact, the gender gap in STEM interest is steadily increasing. In addition to the declining female interest, the study also states “since the graduating class of 2000, African American interest in STEM majors/careers has dropped by nearly 30%.”

Engineering and science are fields that should include everyone. The skills learned allow for numerous career paths from medicine to business. While I think it is excellent that we see an increasing interest with male students (specifically Caucasian men), I must ask, what is it about our culture or the way that we are currently portraying engineering and science to high school students that is causing women and African American students to have a declining interest in more recent years?

6 responses to “Declining Female Interest in STEM Fields

  1. I think the reason women are often turned away from STEM studies is the myth that there is no opportunity for creativity and individuality. I have a friend who is a physics and math professor. She has told me that because she doesn’t fit the image of a scientist (she doesn’t dress in a lab coat; she prefers flowing skirts and blouses), she often isn’t taken seriously, until, that is, she speaks and shares her research. Part of marketing STEM programs to young women should focus heavily on the creative paths that can be taken with a math, science, or engineering degree. By simply saying its not just crunching numbers isn’t enough. We need concrete examples like the woman you met in the coffee shop who markets accessories–that’s fun! Can you blame women for wanting more fun out of life and work? Great post! 🙂

    • Thanks for the input. I do agree that some women may be turned away from certain fields because it seems there is no room for creativity. Something that I have seen more of at universities are minors being offered in engineering and computer science. This allows for someone studying business to gain some insight into engineering, or someone studying art to learn more on the graphic design side of things. Offering hybrid degrees might cause more interest in trying more science and engineering courses.

      Also, I find I have issues similar to your friend. There is sometimes an attitude in the physics and engineering world that clothes and art are below us. I am seeing more of a push back from women that involves dressing how they want, even if it means dressing like they are females! It’s good to hear that your friend defies the stereotype of what a scientist should be, but frustrating that women still get taken less seriously for doing that.

  2. That is surprising, particularly in my field, biostatistics, where, for the past 15 years, the majority of the new/young graduates seem to be female. One of the things we learn is to not put anecdotes above quantifiable data … you know, what I just did. Still, all but 1 of the junior tenure-track faculty where I work are female as are half the senior faculty (the junior faculty of 15 years ago). I believe the overall stats, but obviously my experience differs a bit. My personal ‘experiment’ must fall in the error probability described by p<0.05.

    • It seems possible, although it is always reasonable to question studies such as this. Interest seems a bit difficult to quantify. From my own observations though, lumping in biology, chemistry, physics, engineering, and computer science all together may be misleading. In the biology classes I have taken, I often see a fairly even number of men and women. In high school, other young women seemed fairly interested in biology and chemistry. However, I knew very few women with interest in engineering in high school. It may be more useful to look at specific fields within STEM to pinpoint issues that may turn students away. Do you think there are reasons why women may be drawn to biostatistics?

      • Why women in biostats? I’m not sure, but I remember hearing a couple of female biostatisticians from before the recent wave (that may be real only to me) who moved into biostats as a step up from a career as an actuary (a field with historically high-ish female workforce).

        Beyond that, I can only guess using stereotypes and/or wild guesses. It does have lots of variety while also allowing many to have a balanced life.

        Of course, I could just be travelling in the only majority-female neighborhoods of biostats.

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