The 21st century has been defined by rapid innovation in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields -- a trend showing no signs of slowing down. In 2011, women surpassed men in attaining bachelor's and advanced degrees for the first time, according to the U.S. Census.
Despite these developments, a gender gap persists in the STEM workforce and is only getting wider. In computer science, only 18 percent of American college majors are women, a number that has been declining over the last 30 years (National Center for Women & Information Technology, 2012). When it comes to university professors, just 17 percent of tenure-track faculty in mathematics are female, and a paltry 11 percent in engineering (National Science Foundation, 2008).
Even with vast differences in the pursuit of STEM careers, it is notable that standardized measures of math performance show no meaningful differences between males and females from elementary school through college.
There are many factors that might influence a girl or young woman's decision to pursue a particular career path. While the majority of studies show no differences in STEM ability, a large divide in perceived competence starts as early as age five. One study found that by the spring of kindergarten, boys have a greater willingness to learn math concepts.
By third grade, boys rate their own math competence higher than girls do, even though no differences in actual performance are found. If girls do not expect to succeed in math and other STEM domains as early as elementary school, it is not surprising that by college, their interests have shifted to fields in which they feel more confident.
There is also a widely held stereotype that boys possess more innate STEM ability than girls, which has been found to impact children's performance. Girls as young as seven have been shown to underperform on math tasks when their gender has been made salient.
Furthermore, several studies have found that children are socialized differently regarding mathematics based on gender. Boys tend to receive more encouragement in math from parents and teachers, and mothers overestimate boys' abilities compared to girls'.
When discussing an interactive exhibit at a science museum, parents have been found to explain scientific concepts three times more often to boys than girls. And even at very young ages, children tend to receive gender-specific toys that may promote STEM skills such as building or spatial reasoning more to boys.
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Via Chuck Sherwood, Senior Associate, TeleDimensions, Inc