Research on Gender Equity in STEM Education

Gayle A. Buck, Dionne Cross Francis and Kerrie G. Wilkins-Yel

Although the gender gap between men and women is shrinking in several STEM professional fields, women continue to constitute disproportionately smaller percentages (National Science Foundation, 2017). Researchers seek to explore and address the gaps for a variety of reasons. For example, broadening participation increases the pool of potential employees. Similarly, higher pay rates in certain STEM professions hold promise to address gender-based income inequities. Furthermore, the inclusion of diverse voices and perspectives into the design and development process results in solutions that are applicable to a wider cross-section ot individuals. Irrespective of the rationale underlying discussions on addressing the underrepresentation of women, these efforts are realizing positive changes—for some STEM fields. Women account for the majority (70%) of the workforce in health-related STEM professions (National Science Foundation,2018). They also account for 48% of the positions in professions where the main focus lies within the life sciences. The impact of these efforts, however, have not been as successful in all STEM professions. Currently, women make up only 15% ot engineers and hold only 24% of the computer-related jobs (Funk & Parker, 2018), the latter reflecting a 7% increase in the gender gap (National Science Foundation, 2018).

Although still heavily focused on women, gender-related research discussions are increasingly considering men, as well as the differences found within the male/female gaps. As noted, gender parity has been achieved in some fields and men are underrepresented in others. In addition, societal challenges to the binary classification of gender are expanding our understandings even further. For example, an increasing amount of research is focused on the underrepresentation of transgender individuals (Yoder & Mattheis, 2016) as well as on challenges to the practice of ignoring race/ ethnicity and socioeconomic status in this social construction of gender (Ong, Wright, Espinosa, & Orfield, 2011). Consequently, although the gender and STEM research-related discussions are still overwhelmingly focused on women in STEM, they are evolving.

The purpose of this chapter is to provide an overview of the contemporary research efforts related to gender equity and integrative STEM education. The parameters for our search of empirical literature included: (1) an explicit link to gender (as defined in the next section), and (2) explicit reference to integrated STEM education or crosscutting discussions of STEM professions.

Defining Gender

In coming together to identify the body of research we would review for this chapter, we found ourselves necessarily articulating our construct of gender. First, we understand that gender is not synonymous with women. Although research in this area is overwhelmingly guided by an interest in the underrepresentation of women, we questioned if this approach to gender could ever be inclusive it we do not explore the conversation in regard to men as well. Thus, our definition also acknowledges men in STEM. Second, we acknowledge that gender research is often constructed around understandings of the biological notion of sex and not the dominant modes of social organizations that characterize heterosexist structures and assumptions about gender (O’Malley, 2013). Our definition aligns with the latter perspective, although admittingly still very limited in this regard. Although we don’t seek to totally reject the biological boundary ot gender in this discussion, we do seek to use a broader definition that would somehow encompass a more inclusive approach to gender. Thus, we also sought to deliberately capture gender work considering transgender (gender identity and expression that does not conform to what is associated with biological sex), cisgender (gender identity and expression that aligns with what is associated with biological sex), and pangender (gender identity and expression as fluid) individuals. Third, we share an understanding that a person’s construction of self is influenced not only by gender, but also by their race and socioeconomics (Collins, 1991; Crenshaw, 1994). We seek to challenge what many have come to portray as the universal understanding of gender in STEM; noting that although early discussions sought to address the political and social inequalities that affect women, White, middle-class women were often the focus (Lather, 2007; Ong et al., 2011).

In sum, although we understand that discussions of underrepresentation in STEM do reveal very real inequities for women, our definition of gender in STEM includes cisgender, transgender, and pangender individuals from multiple races and socioeconomic situations. In doing so, we foreground intersectionality, a critical element in understanding the nuanced ways in which STEM participation is gendered, classed, and raced differently (Collins, 1991; Crenshaw, 1994).

STEM College and Career Paths

Despite more than 50 decades of sustained efforts to diversify the STEM participation, many STEM professions remain overwhelmingly comprised of White cisgender men. Women constitute 50.8% of the U.S. population and earn 57% of the bachelor’s degrees (U.S. Census Bureau, 2017). A look at the commonalities and differences in the representation across STEM fields reveals that despite this nearly equal representation, women’s participation is well below men’s in all fields of engineering, computer sciences, and physics. For some STEM fields, this trend was not always the case. In the early 1980s, women comprised more than 36% of bachelor’s computer-based science degree recipients. In 2014, however, this number dropped to 18.1%. Additionally, the nearly equal representation of women does not hold true for women of color, who make up less than 12% of STEM bachelor’s degree recipients. The gap is even greater for men of color, who make up less than 9%. Counter to this trend of favoring the White male, the gender gap favors women in the fields of biosciences, where they represent 58% ot bachelor’s degree recipients (National Science Foundation, 2017).

For these reasons, many scholars have begun to discuss and explore gender issues in STEM in an integrative manner. For example, various disciplines within STEM are often grouped into mathintensive fields (e.g., mathematics, physics, engineering) or caring-related fields of STEM (e.g., medicine, biology) (Wang & Degol, 2017). Unfortunately, although survey developers/sponsors (e.g., the National Science Foundation) are increasingly piloting LGBTQ+ questions on their surveys, such quantitative information is not yet available for those in the LGBTQ+ community. The American Physical Society (APS, 2015), however, stated that over one-third of those who responded to their LGBT Climate in Physics survey noted they considered leaving their workplace or school after experiencing or observing harassment or discrimination, suggesting that a pipeline problem does exist for LGBTQ+ individuals. Similar experiences were noted by Haverkamp et al. (2019) in an autoethnography of transgender students in engineering. This departure from STEM spaces was regarded by these individuals as a ‘positive change’ given the toxicity they would have endured had they continued in their STEM fields.

At the undergraduate level, despite possessing comparable qualifications to their male counterparts, women are far less likely to declare a STEM major. In fact, only 15% of all women in their first year planned to pursue a STEM major (compared to 29% of freshman male students). This disparity becomes more evident within the physical sciences, technology, engineering, and mathematics specifically. Of the women who do declare a STEM major in the beginning, many discontinue these majors shortly after entering college. Although men and women show similar retention in programs such as engineering, women make up a smaller percentage of STEM students to begin with, so any loss throughout the collegiate years is cause for concern.

Reasons for Gender Discrepancies in College and Career Pathways

Given the distinct differences in the rates at which men, women, and those who identify as nonbinary pursue STEM professions, more attention has been placed on understanding contributing factors towards a leaky pipeline. Essentially, this leaking creates a gender-based filter that privileges one gender while severely marginalizing others, thereby removing them from the stream (Blicken- staff, 2005). The belief that this biased system was not purposely created, along with evidence that the attrition rates for men and women at the postsecondary level are similar (Leslie, McClure, & Oaxaca, 1998),supports the notion that this imbalance is the result of the cumulative effect of a multiplicity of related factors that act on students throughout their lives, especially during the pre-college years. The research on gender and STEM provides insight into these factors. Taken together, this research highlights the factors associated with differences in: (1) achievement and choice, (2) levels of self-efficacy, (3) stereotypes and their influences on STEM identity, (4) sociocultural marginalization within the professional communities, and (5) family support and resources.

Achievement and Choice

The research literature on the gender gap(s) in the STEM pipeline reveals a strong interest in the relationship between the achievement in prerequisite subjects and academic/career interests of students. Because of the rigorous and sequential nature of how the content develops in these disciplines, to choose to major in certain STEM fields in college requires the appropriate academic achievement in science and mathematics in P-12 education. The research is showing, however, that achievement in these areas does not always lead individuals to pursue STEM majors (Wang & Degol, 2017).

Although data show a persistent gender gap in regard to achievement on NAEP and ACT exams in prerequisite subjects, research shows that girls and boys perform similarly in the classrooms (O’Dea, Lagisz, Jennions, & Nakagawa, 2018; Reardon, Fahle, Kalogrides, Podolsky, & Zarate, 2018). These findings contrast with common perceptions of math gender achievement gaps (Lee, Moon, & Hegar, 2011; Robinson & Lubienski, 2011). Researchers are questioning why, it school-level achievement in prerequisite subjects is not preventing members of various gender populations from entering the STEM pipeline, many are choosing not to pursue STEM at the postsecondary level. There is equity in the number of men and women who initially expressed (those who indicated a STEM major on the ACT) and measured (identified on a research-validated interest inventory) interest in STEM. Looking more closely within the broader category of STEM, however, gender differences exist, with men showing greater interest in engineering and women being more interested in health fields and medicine (Sadler, Sonnert, Hazari, & Tai, 2012). In addition, Seymour (1997) found that interest was the most cited reason women provided for why they left the science pipeline, with the second most cited reason being a greater interest in non-STEM fields. There is also a disparity in STEM interest when we consider intersectionality and integrate race and gender. The proportion of students planning to major in STEM were higher for men than for women in every racial and ethnic group (National Science Board, 2014).

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