May 15, 2016

STEM: The Roots of the Gender Gap

By Madison Ortega

If you are a girl who is interested in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM), or if you are plainly a person that cares about the fate of Kentucky’s innovational future, there is something you must know: women have less than a 25% representation in these critical and high-paying fields. 

Women with STEM jobs actually make 33% more than comparable women with non-STEM jobs, yet only 20% of undergraduate women are pursuing a degree in engineering, tech, or science.

The problem has little, if anything, to do with capability.

A dissertation by University of Kentucky Martin School’s Khin Thazin Myint examining the relationship between gender differences and academics in Kentucky public schools found the following:

Girls performed as well as boys on measures of math ability in the 4th, 8th, and 12th grades;

In their high school career, girls were more likely to have taken geometry, algebra II, pre-calculus, biology, and chemistry than boys;

Twenty-eight percent of Kentucky school districts exhibited a large female advantage in scores in both 2007 and 2008 in at least two school levels within the districts;

On average, female students score higher on the standardized tests given in Kentucky schools than male students; and

The gap between male and female academic attainment and achievement has closed, and has reversed in many states across the country, including Kentucky.

While K-12 schools don’t seem to be showing much of a problem, the gender gap starts to become quite apparent at the postsecondary level. Despite the fact that women’s enrollment in graduate education in the United States has been greater than men’s for 30 years running, it appears that women are not choosing the highest-paying sciences like men are. According to the National Girls Collaborative Project, in 2011, just 18.2% of bachelor’s degrees in computer sciences, 19.2% in engineering, and 19.1% in physics were awarded to women.

This leads us to wonder: What might be happening to these young girls as they become older that causes such a large gender gap in STEM fields? Could it be that the gap has cultural roots?

From my individual childhood experience, I know that it is acceptable, even preferred, for a little girl to enjoy playing with Barbie Dolls and princesses. However, if you look at most marketing and the gender demographic featured in advertisements, it is not quite as acceptable for her to like toys more associated with science and engineering, such as cars and construction sets. And through my involvement with math and science, I have found that as a girl, it tends to be rather hard to be taken seriously in the STEM fields. 

From conversations with other students, I suspect such built-in biases only get worse as you go through adolescence, mainly because peer groups are afraid to question them. 

Eumin Shin, an eighth grader at Rowan County Middle School who is currently taking a high school geometry class, said she remembers exactly what a boy told her when she was in sixth grade: “Women shouldn’t be in engineering because they can’t handle the dirty work.”

Evan Barker, a junior at East Carter High School, told me that when she casually mentioned to a group at lunch that she was not interested in a math or science-related field, one boy at her table responded with: “It’s a good thing since it’s a man’s field.” 

A career in STEM offers women the opportunity to shape the world and help ensure that places like Kentucky live up to their full potential in contributing to important inventions and ideas. Despite the social pressures, many of which are noticeable if you are in school yourself, we have to get more girls to envision a future in STEM that goes beyond high school graduation. In other words, we have to support students to challenge stereotypes well before they play out in career choices, and our schools must start providing a sufficient amount of opportunities for young girls interested in STEM. Kentucky’s future as a state of innovation utterly depends on it.

This op-ed ran as part of a package with several other Student Voice Team op-eds in the Courier Journal.

Madison Marie Ortega

Madison Marie Ortega

Madison is a former member of KSVT and was previously the Co-Director of School Climate Audits. She graduated from Rowan County High School in 2020 and is a student at Pepperdine University.