• Home
  • Study recommends additional math education to steer women to STEM fields

Study recommends additional math education to steer women to STEM fields

Monday, November 03, 2014

LAWRENCE — To help bridge the gap between men and women in math-intensive STEM fields and careers, educators should engage girls as young as elementary school in intervention programs focused on more math skills, according to a new report on the landscape of women in science-related careers.

"Math is the key to many of these majors where women are underrepresented," said Donna Ginther, University of Kansas professor of economics and director of KU's Center for Science, Technology & Economic Policy at the Institute for Policy & Social Research. "The mathematical careers and those majors pay significantly better than social science, life science and psychology, and I really think that in the long term — because of computers, information and data — math is key to having a well-paying job and a career."

Ginther further discusses the study here.

The intervention strategy is the main policy recommendation from a study Ginther, psychological scientists Stephen J. Ceci and Wendy M. Williams of Cornell University and Boston University economist Shulamit Kahn conducted on the gender gap in academic sciences since 2000. The full report and an accompanying commentary by Diane Halpern of Minerva Schools at the Keck Graduate Institute are published this month in Psychological Science in the Public Interest, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science. A New York Times op-ed also addressed the study. 

The study included a review of all past and wide-ranging research on women in the academic sciences since 2000 and a quantitative analysis of data by gender, including high school graduation rates, academic majors, careers, salaries, hours worked and academic publications. The report contains several pieces of good news, Ginther said, such as increasing parity between men and women in certain science fields, except for computer science.

"There's been significant progress, but puzzles remain," Ginther said.

A key feature of the report is that it separates math-intensive fields in which women are underrepresented from non-math-intensive fields of life science, psychology and social science, referred to as LPS, in which women are overrepresented or at parity — often breaking down analyses into eight disciplines over multiple time periods to chart the changing landscape.

"You cannot treat all science fields the same, so each is a separate market. Women's progress or lack of progress depends upon the field," Ginther said.

The report shows women are underrepresented in college majors, graduate school programs and professional fields that are the most mathematically intensive, such as geoscience, engineering, economics, mathematics, computer science and the physical sciences, referred to as GEEMP. In 2011, for example, women received just 25 percent of GEEMP bachelor’s degrees, and women comprised just 25 percent to 44 percent of tenure-track assistant professors in GEEMP fields. Yet women outnumber men among college graduates overall.

Ginther said although there has been progress in getting more women into STEM fields, the next step is focusing on math-intensive skills to encourage more female students to enter those fields in the future. GEEMP-related careers tend to lead to jobs with higher wages than the fields of life science, psychology and social science, she said.

"Math is the gatekeeper, and young women's views of how well they do math is a gatekeeper. It becomes a cumulative advantage story that if you don't have the math early on, it's going to be the road not taken — a very lucrative road not taken," Ginther said. "So it's a big problem and something that as a society we need to think about."

Such interventions may include programs, beginning as early as elementary school, designed to encourage girls to engage and achieve in fields like engineering, computer science and physics.

At the university level, enticing women to switch to GEEMP majors depends on requiring early science coursework, because women switch to GEEMP majors more often than men but only if they have taken introductory science courses early in their college career. And still later, interventions must focus on fostering work-life balance for talented doctoral students who are at greater risk of opting out of tenure-track positions.

“Our hope is that this research synthesis, coupled with the numerous new analyses we have provided in this article, will help redirect the debate toward critical issues that are most important in limiting the careers of women scientists today, and hopefully move closer to solving them,” the research team wrote.