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This is the first of two IAE Newsletters focusing on women in the STEM areas.
Women and the STEM Disciplines of Study and Work
Emeritus Professor of Education
University of Oregon
"Nothing can be more absurd than the
practice that prevails in our country of men and women not following
the same pursuits with all their strengths and with one mind, for thus,
the state instead of being whole is reduced to half." (Plato; Classical
Greek philosopher, mathematician, writer of philosophical dialogues,
and founder of the Academy in Athens, the first institution of higher
learning in the western world; 428/427 BC–348/347 BC.)
As the quote given above suggests, the education of women and the
occupations open to them have long been a controversial issue. Even
today, some parts of the world give preference to men in terms of
educational opportunities. The Science, Technology, Engineering, and
Mathematics (STEM) disciplines of study and employment opportunities
provide a different but closely related problem. These problems vary
from country to country. However, this IAE Newsletter focuses just on the United States.
Much of the information in this newsletter comes from a recently updated and expanded IAE-pedia document, Women in STEM (Moursund, 2015).
Currently in the U.S., women are under-represented in the STEM
professions. Many people view this situation as being due to a type of
discrimination against women. It is common to point to the potential of
women to help meet the ever-growing need for well-educated people
(workers and users) in the STEM areas. For these and other reasons,
currently there are a number of organization and governmental programs
designed to help increase the number of women going into the STEM areas
of study and work.
A Historical Perspective
Think back 200,000 years ago when anatomically modern Homo sapiens
first came on the scene. People lived as hunter-gatherers. The average
life span was probably in the range of 20 to 25 years, and women
produced as many babies as the time and their bodies allowed.
Homo sapiens survived and eventually prospered through cooperation, the
development of tools, and through a division of labor. Very roughly
speaking, women focused on having and rearing babies, and providing a
“home” environment suitable to these endeavors. Men focused on hunting
and fighting types of activities. Both women and men were gatherers.
Groups (clans, tribes) of people developed social structures that were
suited to their hunter-gatherer, environmental, and survival needs.
About 12,000 years ago agriculture began to develop and spread. Both
hunting and gathering initially remained quite important. But, raising
and harvesting crops gradually replaced gathering, and hunting was
gradually replaced as various farm animals were domesticated. The major
change in division of work between women and men was that men switched
from being hunters to being farmers, and women switched from a
combination of child rearing and gathering to a combination of child
rearing and farm work.
The Industrial Revolution began about 250 years ago. The division of
labor pattern that gradually developed was one of women continuing to
“make” the home and raise children, while men became “breadwinners”
through working in factories and through other jobs outside the home.
In the U.S., it wasn’t until World War II, 1941-1945, that large
numbers of women began to work in industrial age types of factory jobs.
During that war, women demonstrated they could be quite capable
Still more recently, our educational system became much more open to
and supportive of women. Now, in the U.S. women far outnumber men in
undergraduate college enrollment. Quoting from The Condition of Women
(IES, May, 2015):
In fall 2013,
female students made up 56 percent of total undergraduate enrollment at
9.8 million and male students made up 44 percent at 7.7 million.
Enrollment for both groups increased between 1990 and 2013, but most of
the increases occurred between 2000 and 2010, when female enrollment
increased by 39 percent and male enrollment increased by 36 percent.…
Between 2013 and 2024, female enrollment is projected to increase by 15
percent (from 9.8 million to 11.3 million students), and male
enrollment is projected to increase by 9 percent (from 7.7 million to
8.3 million students).
This type of data suggests that in our current educational system,
women are more academically successful than men. There have been many
research studies attempting to compare women and men in the STEM areas
of study. My 10/2/2015 Google search of the expression comparing women and men in the STEM fields of study produced about 47 million results. My search on the expression gender gap in STEM fields produced about 124,000 results.
A PBS News Hour Report
Denise Cummings' PBS News Hour presentation provides a good introduction to women in STEM (Cummings, 4/17/2015). Quoting Cummings:
There are two
universally accepted “truths” about women and STEM careers (science,
technology, engineering, and mathematics). The first is that men
outnumber women in these fields, and the second is that women are
socialized to avoid STEM as career choices, because society considers
them “unfeminine.” These beliefs have spawned a national effort on
the part of the National Science Foundation to attract girls and young
women into STEM. The preferred strategy is to attract females by
“unbrainwashing them” into accepting STEM careers as appropriate for
women. On closer
inspection, it turns out that these “truths” are nothing more than
assumptions, and that these assumptions are inconsistent with the facts. [Bold added for emphasis.]
Cummings then goes on to briefly explore some of the major issues about
women and STEM. The article contains sections focusing on:
Men do not outnumber women in all STEM fields, but they do so in some.
Women and men are equally capable of doing STEM work.
Sex-linked interest preferences are not
mere artifacts of socialization. Both women and men are a product of
nature and nurture. Research suggests we should not blame all of the
STEM education and employment differences just on the nurture of girls.
Different preferences don’t mean women’s are less important.
In summary, Cummings states:
clearly capable of doing well in STEM fields traditionally dominated by
men, and they should not be hindered, bullied, or shamed for pursuing
careers in such fields. But we [women] also should not be ashamed if
our interests differ from men’s. If we find certain careers more
intrinsically rewarding than men do, that does not mean we have been
brainwashed by society or herded into menial fields of labor. Instead,
we should demand that greater intrinsic and monetary compensation be
awarded to the work we like and want to do.
Sex Differences in Learning and Doing Math
The topic of women and math is frequently raised in discussing
gender equity. The basic question is whether the seeming differences
between women and men in math are due to nature (genetic/innate) or due
In recent years, there have been a number of studies looking for innate
math-related differences and similarities between girls and boys. The
article, Sex, Math and Scientific Achievement provides a nice, readable
summary of some of the findings up to 2007 (Halpern, et al., December,
2007). The following quoted material captures some of the findings from
and overall test scores depend on many factors, psychologists have
turned to assessing better-defined cognitive skills to understand these
sex differences. Preschool children seem to start out more or less
even, because girls and boys, on average, perform equally well in early
cognitive skills that relate to quantitative thinking and knowledge of
objects in the surrounding environment.
Around the time school begins, however, the
sexes start to diverge. By the end of grade school and beyond, females
perform better on most assessments of verbal abilities. In a 1995
review of the vast literature on writing skills, University of Chicago
researchers Larry Hedges (now at Northwestern University) and Amy
Nowell put it this way: “The large sex differences in writing … are
alarming. The data imply that males are, on average, at a rather
profound disadvantage in the performance of this basic skill.” There is
also a female advantage in memory of faces and in episodic
memory—memory for events that are personally experienced and are
recalled along with information about each event’s time and place.
There is another type of ability, however, in
which boys have the upper hand, a skill set referred to as
visuospatial: an ability to mentally navigate and model movement of
objects in three dimensions. Between the ages of four and five, boys
are measurably better at solving mazes on standardized tests. Another
manifestation of visuospatial skill in which boys excel involves
“mental rotation,” holding a three-dimensional object in memory while
simultaneously transforming it. As might be expected, these
capabilities also give boys an edge in solving math problems that rely
on creating a mental image.
Gender and Racial Inequalities in STEM
A 2015 report from U.S. News & Raytheon provides data on gender and racial inequalities in the STEM areas (U.S. News & Raytheon, 6/29/2015). Quoting from this article:
dollar initiatives by both the public and the private sectors have
failed to close gender and racial gaps in science, technology,
engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields, according to the
second-annual U.S. News/Raytheon STEM Index, unveiled today at http://www.usnews.com/stemindex.
The STEM Index, developed exclusively by U.S.
News & World Report with support from Raytheon, provides a national
snapshot of STEM jobs and education. The index measures key indicators
of economic- and education-related STEM activity in the United States
since the year 2000.
The 2015 STEM Index shows that while employment
and degrees granted in STEM fields have improved since 2000, gaps
between men and women and between whites and minorities in STEM remain
Mathematics remains the Achilles’ heel of STEM
fields: Across all demographic groups, interest in mathematics has
declined since 2000.
The article provides data on educational attainments of women and men in the STEM areas. Quoting again from the article:
girls are much less interested in pursuing engineering and technology
than their male peers. In 2014, only 3 percent of high school females
reported an interest in engineering, compared to 31 percent of males.
In the same year, just 2 percent of girls reported an interest in
technology, while 15 percent of boys expressed an interest in the field.
In 2014, only 6 percent of associate
degrees and 13 percent of bachelor’s degrees granted to females were in
a STEM field. By contrast, 20 percent of associate degrees and 28
percent of bachelor’s degrees granted to males were in STEM fields.
At the graduate level, in 2014 only 10 percent of graduate
degrees earned by females were in STEM fields. In the same year, 24
percent of graduate degrees granted to males were STEM degrees.
Organizations Dedicated to Increasing Women in STEM
My 10/3/2015 Google search of the expression organizations for women in stem
produced about 38 million results. For some lists of such organizations
see 12 STEM Resources for Young Women (Nunziata, 8/6/2014) and Girls
Math and Technology Program (University of Nevada, Reno, n.d.). Six
organizations are listed below with very brief descriptions.
Association for Women in Science (AWIS).
“The Association for Women in Science is dedicated to achieving
equality and full participation for women in science, technology,
engineering and mathematics.”
Expanding Your Horizons Network (EYHN)
Expanding Your Horizons Network (EYHN).
“EYHN is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization dedicated to providing
gateway STEM experiences to middle and high school girls that spark
interest in STEM activities and careers.”
National Girls Collaborative Project (NGCP)
National Girls Collaboration Project.
“The vision of the NGCP is to bring together organizations throughout
the United States that are committed to informing and encouraging girls
to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics
Society of Women Engineers (SWE)
The Society of Women Engineers “…is a not-for-profit educational
and service organization that empowers women to succeed and advance in
the field of engineering, and to be recognized for their life-changing
contributions as engineers and leaders.”
Women in Technology (WIT)
Women in Technology.
“As the premier professional association for women in the technology
industry, we understand the unique challenges you face. No matter where
you are in your professional development, or what technology-related
field you're in, our community offers a broad range of support,
programs and resources to advance women in technology from the
classroom to the boardroom.”
“…is a nonprofit organization that empowers women and girls to change
the world by providing scholarships and financial support to programs
that foster interest in science, technology, engineering and math
(STEM) related careers.” Final Thoughts
STEM jobs tend to pay well, and there tend to be a high number of
job openings in the STEM areas (Koebel, 4/18/2015). Koebel’s article
indicates that the average wage for all STEM occupations is $85,570,
nearly double the average for all occupations ($47,230).
Research supports the contention that women are as capable in the STEM
areas as are men. Thus, the under-representation of women in
undergraduate and graduate programs of study can be attributed to their
upbringing (nurture) and interests. Research also suggests that
educational programs to encourage more women to pursue a STEM education
and careers should start in the early grades of elementary school.
David Moursund is an Emeritus Professor of Education at the University of Oregon, and coeditor of the IAE Newsletter.
His professional career includes founding the International Society for
Technology in Education (ISTE) in 1979, serving as ISTE’s executive
officer for 19 years, and establishing ISTE’s flagship publication, Learning and Leading with Technology.
He was the major professor or co-major professor for 82 doctoral
students. He has presented hundreds of professional talks and
workshops. He has authored or coauthored more than 60 academic books
and hundreds of articles. Many of these books are available free
online. See http://iaepedia.org/David_Moursund_Books. In 2007, Moursund founded Information Age Education (IAE). IAE provides free online educational materials via its IAE-pedia, IAE Newsletter, IAE Blog, and books. See http://iaepedia.org/Main_Page#IAE_in_a_Nutshell.
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