Gender Disparity in STEM

Women are considered to be less interested in STEM subjects and careers. While much research has been done to attain a better understanding of the gender disparity in STEM, one reason comes up again and again and it is the bias and stereotypes associated with genders. A recent study found that both men and women were twice as likely to hire a man for a job that required math (Hill et al., 2010). Here is an attempt to understand why this gap exists and how can teachers contribute towards reducing the gap. Gender disparities continue to be a defining characteristic of STEM education, as per the research done by Kenney-Benson et al. (2006) female students’ STEM grades are equal to or better than those of their male classmates in elementary and secondary school. Yet when it comes to gender equality male dominance is seen in all fields of STEM. 

Our society has created gender stereotypes since ancient times when humans started farming and the role of physical rigour was assigned to men. Gender role stereotypes convince us to allow the male gender to be agentic, take the lead to inquire and explore and find solutions to problems. This has manifested in the male gender made to conform with cultural representations of math and science. Even the attributes of a STEM learner are problem solvers and innovators which are associated with role stereotypes of the male gender. This itself proves that we orient our thinking towards STEM to be a masculine subject. Gender bias comes into play when assigning tasks for problem-solving. Typically in many classrooms across the world, girls are given the task of decorating or designing, while boys are given the task of research and investigation in a task. This is due to masculine stereotypes prevailing in the teaching of STEM, peer expectations, and lack of fit with personal goals (Dasgupta & Stout, 2014). This type of bias makes girls move away from STEM fields creating a huge gender disparity in STEM.

This has multiple ramifications, for example, female students of colour (SoC) struggle to complete STEM experiences, which becomes a barrier to shaping identity and academic success (Jones, 2019). Multiple frameworks highlight the lived experiences of female SoC in STEM including identity theory, and intersectionality. It demands consideration be given to the space, community, and present structures where identity work is produced. The decline in the number of female SoC graduates in STEM disciplines is partly due to discriminatory approaches by public universities, schools and colleges of race-based affirmative action. Till this date, many educational institutions require students to declare their race, ethnicity, religion even before getting an admission offer. Furthermore, STEM programs are often structured in a way in which students have to essentially prove their intellectual worth to stay, they may be forced out if they don’t meet high academic standards. Minority students already face unfair stereotypes about being intellectually inferior, and this is likely exacerbated in STEM programs, according to the study (Jones, 2019).

Teachers Can Bend The Arc

Since stereotypes and biases still exist, teachers need to make a conscious effort to bend the arc towards gender equality in STEM. For example, practising a pedagogy to instigate an inquiry mindset in young girls. Inquiry-based tasks that teachers create by understanding the student’s needs is a great way of including girls and students of colour in STEM learning. Also, teachers do not consider the need to address the lack of interest in STEM subjects by girls. If they were made aware of this as an epidemic plaguing the education world, they will guide the girl child towards inquiry or problem solving or experimenting.

Furthermore, STEM integrated with authentic science projects engages learners, hence girls can be engaged in activities that they would usually not be interested in due to societal stereotype or bias. Planning group work for fostering peer support for female SoC is also an effective strategy as peer support matters to participants’ success in critical ways both academic and social. The group work fosters safe, engaging climates for asking questions. 

In summary, equity, relationship and students’ interest should be the core elements and practices for encouraging girls to pursue STEM subjects. Teach them to ask uncomfortable questions, create a space for them to discuss uncomfortable questions and teach them to bend the arc.

References

Dasgupta, N., & Stout, J. G. (2014). Girls and women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics: stemming the tide and broadening participation in STEM careers. Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 1(1), 21–29.

Hill. C., Corbett, C. and St Rose, A. (2010) Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (Amer Assoc Univ Women, Washington, DC).

Jones, T. C. (2019). Creating a World for Me: Students of Color Navigating STEM Identity. The Journal of Negro Education, 88(3), 358–378.

Kenney-Benson, G. A., Pomerantz, E. M., Ryan, A.M., Patrick, H. (2006). Sex differences in math performance: the role of children’s approach to schoolwork. Dev. Psychol. 42

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