New research from Georgetown University in Washington, DC, finds that poor grades in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) courses cause female students more than male students to change their major.
The study also concludes that having more female professors teach STEM courses does not seem to encourage greater female enrolment in STEM fields.
Gender issues within the sciences and technology have recently become a topic of concern, with revelations of sexist work environments at a number of major tech companies and debates surrounding a former Google employee’s posted letter criticizing the company's diversity policy and claiming that genetic differences are to blame for the lack of women found in high tech.
One irrefutable fact is that still today, women tend to choose majors at post-secondaries that commonly lead to lower paid careers. The humanities, education and some of the social sciences are typical go-to choices for women, where the higher paying jobs are more found in the sciences, engineering and business — all of which have higher representations of men.
Thus, shrinking the wage gap between men and women, some experts say, will require getting more women into STEM careers, which in turn entails higher female enrolment in STEM programs at universities and colleges.
Researchers analyzed data on students attending an unnamed large private university on the United States’s east coast between the years 2009 and 2016, looking at information on students’ majors, on classes taken, final grades and class and faculty composition in each course.
The results showed that while women and men are equally likely to change out of majors in response to poor grades, the exceptions to that rule are STEM programs.
“Only when women are in a male-dominated STEM field are they more responsive than men to the negative feedback of low grades,” say the study’s authors, whose work is published by the National Bureau of Economic Research.
The authors suggest that current branding of STEM disciplines as too male-populated and in need of more representation by women may paradoxically be causing more women to leave the programs. “If female students believe that men are inherently a better fit for STEM majors, and those female students also see their numerical minority status, they are more likely to perceive their low grades as confirmation about their unfitness for their male-dominated STEM major,” say the authors.
The study further found that a student’s high school academic preparation and the number of female faculty in a program both had little effect on behaviour about switching majors, a result which proved disappointing to one of the study’s co-authors, Adriana D. Kugler of Georgetown’s McCourt School of Public Policy.
“Women faculty don’t seem to attract more women into a field, and that was sort of sad news for us,” Kugler said, to Inside Higher Education. “We were hoping we could make more of a difference.”
While female students outnumber male students at post-secondaries in Canada, they are still a minority in STEM fields. Statistics Canada reports that as of 2014, women made up just over one quarter (25.4 per cent) of enrolment in mathematics, computer and information sciences and less than one-fifth (19 per cent) of enrolment in engineering and architecture.