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Why the STEM Gender Gap Persists

In 2018, women formed the majority of both applicants (50.9%) and new enrollees (51.6%) to U.S. medical schools. At American University of Antigua (AUA) College of Medicine, the gender ratio is almost exactly 50-50. But this gender equality in medicine has not yet carried over into other STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields.

While women make up close to 47% of the U.S. workforce, they represented less than a quarter (24%) of those in STEM occupations in 2015. A significant disparity in engineering and tech jobs is a contributing factor to the overall gender gap in STEM.

In 2016, women composed 25.5% of computer and mathematical occupations, and 14.2% of architecture and engineering occupations. And the numbers are even lower for women of color. Black, Latina, and Asian women made up less than 10% of employed scientists and engineers in the U.S. in 2015.

Why is the STEM gender gap so persistent?

A major challenge is that it’s not the result of a single social, economic, or political factor. It has layers of complex elements that aren’t easy to untangle: lack of representation and mentorship; enduring gender stereotypes and biases; even gendered toys.

Many recent studies trying to identify the cause of the STEM gender disparity introduce almost as many questions as they provide answers.

A study from Georgetown University researchers, published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, looked into why women who started in STEM majors switched to different subjects. They found that varied factors, such as the environment, the perception of the major, and grades, all played a role.

For example, negative feedback through bad grades affected male and female students’ decisions to leave STEM majors. This trend was present only in STEM, not other male-dominated fields, leading researchers to conclude that attitudes and perceptions about STEM are influential. The Georgetown study also analyzed data from an East Coast university from 2009 to 2016, finding that increasing female STEM faculty didn’t seem to attract more women to the field. Researchers determined that the way recruiting is positioned might actually be a deterrent for female students.

“Society keeps telling us that STEM fields are masculine fields, that we need to increase the participation of women in STEM fields, but that kind of sends a signal that it’s not a field for women, and it kind of works against keeping women in these fields,” said Adriana D. Kugler, one of the Georgetown researchers.

A thought-provoking 2018 paper, published in Psychological Science, studied nearly a half million adolescents from 67 countries. It found that women in countries with the least gender inequality – such as such as Algeria, Tunisia, Albania, and the United Arab Emirates – actually had the highest representation of women in STEM. In contrast, countries with the strong gender equality and dependable social safety nets ­– such as Sweden, Switzerland, Norway and Finland — had the lowest number of female STEM graduates.

In 60% of the countries studied, girls were at least as strong as boys in math and science. But while the girls did well in STEM, they showed even higher scores in reading. Researchers theorize that boys would be advised to choose careers based on their strengths and follow a STEM track, while girls would be able to choose more widely from what they are good at.

The study’s authors hypothesize that because countries with less gender equality also tend to have less social support, girls in those countries might be more inclined to pick STEM professions for their more stable financial future. Meanwhile, girls in countries with better equality and social support may have more of an option to follow their interests, whether they are in STEM or another field.

There is no simple fix for the STEM gender gap, but AUA is joining with other global organizations to work toward solutions.

The International Day of Women and Girls in Science

AUA is proud to celebrate February 11 as the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. The United Nation General Assembly declared this day to support gender equality in science professions worldwide, encouraging equal access to and participation for women and girls. Globally, less than 30% of researchers are women.

“Skills in science, technology, engineering and math drive innovation and are critical to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals,” said UN Secretary-General António Guterres in a message to mark the occasion. “Women and girls are vital in all these areas. Yet they remain woefully under-represented. Gender stereotypes, a lack of visible role models and unsupportive or even hostile policies and environments can keep them from pursuing these careers. The world cannot afford to miss out on the contributions of half our population.”

Learn more about the International Day of Women and Girls in Science and AUA’s commitment to diversity.