Despite gains in women’s education, the gender gap in STEM degrees (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) remains widespread. Entry into STEM fields remains low among women. According to a 2011 report by the US Department of Commerce, only one in seven engineers are women. Why does the STEM degree gender gap remain regardless of efforts to eliminate it?
Research shows that children develop occupational orientations during their youth–far before the college years. Legewie & DiPrete attempt to determine the role of high school context in gender differences towards orientations for STEM fields by using the National Education Longitudinal Study data on high school students. They find that reported plans to study a STEM field in college among girls vary substantially across high schools and is associated with whether the school promotes STEM for girls through AP science and math courses. Attending a school that promotes STEM fields among girls reduced the gender gap by 25%.
Promoting STEM fields for girls in high schools or earlier may be an effective way to reorient career and gender identities and reduce the gender gap in STEM fields. Closing the gender gap in STEM degrees has important implications for eradicating the gender gap in earnings and ensuring a supply of qualified labor in science and engineering. This is important because, as put by Nichelle Nicoles (former NASA ambassador and actress), “Science is not a boy’s game, and it’s not a girl’s game. It’s everyone’s game. It’s about where we are and where we’re going.”
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Sarah Garcia is a graduate student in Sociology at the University of Minnesota who studies population health and inequality.