Contextualizing the Conversation on Women and STEM

Are girls incompetent in math? No. Are girls anxious and unconfident about their math abilities? Yes. Do girls and women encounter discrimination in STEM? Yes.
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young beautiful happy women...
young beautiful happy women...

The acronym, STEM, regularly appears in newspapers, blogs, scholarly journals, and even presidential addresses, as part of a national conversation about education, jobs, and the economy. Much of the time, the conversation is focused on getting more young people interested in pursuing STEM, on the need to improve American STEM education, and the controversial issue of outsourcing STEM jobs overseas. Increasingly, this conversation also turns to the underrepresentation of women in STEM jobs. Why aren't more women in STEM?

Social scientists have examined this issue plenty. Are girls incompetent in math? No. Are girls anxious and unconfident about their math abilities? Yes. Do girls and women encounter discrimination in STEM? Yes. Sometimes it's subtle discouragement from peers or teachers, sometimes it's a clear bias from employers opposed to hiring women scientists. Despite evidence that girls and women are just as capable as boys and men, stereotypes of gender gaps in STEM abilities persist. Moreover, these stereotypes - which kids learn before they learn fractions - can shape hiring practices as well as attitudes about one's own abilities and choices to pursue STEM coursework.

Consider the Contexts

But, the conversation we're having about women and STEM is, often, missing an essential variable that can qualify what we think we know about women and STEM. It's context.

That is, in which contexts do girls pursue STEM? In which contexts do girls feel confident in their STEM abilities? In which contexts are women scientists mentored and nurtured, rather than marginalized and rejected?

We live in a social context - a beautiful, but messy, complex, unjust, and dynamic context - that contributes to variability in things like STEM achievement and attitudes. Yet, context is often missing from the conversation about women and STEM because it's difficult to address, on practical as well as conceptual levels. It's complicated and doesn't always fit into a newsbyte or talking point.

One way to address context in the women and STEM question is to examine conditions under which gender gaps in STEM achievement and attitudes are exacerbated or mitigated. Cross-national research indicates that some nations have conditions that foster gender differences and others have conditions that foster gender similarities. In nations where women's share of STEM jobs is greater, the gender gaps in math achievement and attitudes are smaller. That is, nations in which women have careers in science tend to show gender similarities among children in math achievement and attitudes. One possible explanation for this is that, when girls grow up in a societal context in which women have STEM jobs, they learn that their STEM achievement is valuable and that such jobs are appropriate for them to pursue. That realization leads them to work harder at math.

Some contexts seem to make a difference, while others do not. For example, politicians and single-sex schooling advocates have argued that single-sex classrooms are a context in which gender gaps in STEM achievement and attitudes are reduced. They argue that, in an environment without boys, girls will learn and love STEM. Opponents of this approach have argued that there's no reason to believe single-sex classrooms will help girls or boys. Eventually boys and girls will need to thrive in the same context, and single-sex classrooms might actually make things worse because they magnify gender stereotypes. Data examining the STEM achievement and attitudes of youth in single-sex classrooms or schools indicate that this context does not improve outcomes for girls.

Gender and...

Moreover, the national conversation about women and STEM cannot progress until it considers gender within the context of other social identity variables, such as ethnicity, class, and immigration. That is, how does the experience of being female depend on also being, for example, Asian American? This approach to the women and STEM question doesn't sound revolutionary, but it is. We don't think of ourselves as only having gender or only having race. We think of ourselves as multifaceted and complex individuals - because we are multifaceted and complex individuals.

Feminists and critical race theorists call this kind of approach intersectionality, which means that, when we examine phenomena such as disparities in the pursuit of STEM jobs, we consider the meaning, experience, and effects of simultaneously belonging to multiple social groups. This approach has resulted in some very innovative and illuminating social science, but it remains somewhat fringe. Why? Scientists are fond of parsimony, clarity, and elegance--with good reason. But intersectionality, insofar as it reflects the wild social context we develop within, can be dauntingly complicated and ambiguous. Of course, that's where things get really interesting.

When we attend to gender, ethnicity, and class simultaneously, we learn that gender differences in STEM attitudes are less consistent than many scientists think. In recently published research with African American, Asian American, Latino/a, and White youth in urban schools, my students and I examined STEM attitudes at the intersection of gender and ethnicity. Adolescent boys reported more positive attitudes within every ethnic group, but differences across ethnic groups contribute to a more complex story. For example, Asian American boys reported the highest math self-concept and expectations for future success in math, but White girls reported the lowest; these two groups differed by a full standard deviation. While these attitudes tend not to reflect abilities perfectly, they do predict future achievements and choices about pursuing STEM.

Clearly, we need our young people to pursue STEM and we need them to do so here in the US. Let's identify the contexts in which girls thrive and make those contexts unexceptional. It is worthwhile for us to encourage all American kids to pursue STEM, to make it clear that anyone and everyone can do STEM, at every corner of the gender and ethnicity intersection.

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