Project Ascendance | Part I

Racial and Gender Gaps in STEM Participation

In 2016, Artemis Connection launched Project Ascendance, a study on the racial and gender divide in STEM fields. An initiative of our 4.5% Giving Back Promise, Project Ascendance seeks to build a body of research and create actionable plans for women and minorities to advance their careers in STEM. This blog series shares preliminary findings from our research, based on individual interviews, literature review, and analyses.

To understand what it is that causes racial and gender gaps in participation in STEM careers, we wanted to explore the impact of early educational experiences on women and racial minorities. During the last few months, we've interviewed over 150 women and racial minorities in leadership roles and/or with computer science degrees—most in STEM fields. We asked our interviewees to consider how early interests and abilities were or were not shaped around STEM subjects, and how exposure to various professionals informed their own ideas of a potential careers.

First, a little background. Contemporary research points to the fact that gender and minority gaps in STEM participation can be traced back to early education, where negative attitudes toward science and stereotypes significantly contribute to the gender gap in STEM participation in middle school and high school.[1] Whether a student will participate in STEM subjects in middle and high school depends largely on whether they were introduced to these subjects in elementary school and their early interest in these subjects. From childhood through high school, boys express more positive interests and attitudes toward STEM than their female peers.[2]

Interest in STEM and associations of STEM with boys often begin before elementary school. The divergent socialization of boys and girls leads girls to frequently perceive a "mismatch between their self-image and belonging in STEM" and consequently lowers their aspirations for STEM careers.[3]  In addition, parents often treat boys and girls differently, estimating their children's abilities differently based on gender stereotypes, which in turn contributes to sex differences in behavior.[4] Such socialization influences a child's perception of his or her own abilities, especially toward gender-stereotyped subjects like math and science.

Our research on the impact of K-6 education on gender and minority gaps in STEM careers reveals two key preliminary findings:

1. Exposure to STEM at home or through a role model during early education years, particularly for women, can help individuals develop interest in a STEM field.

Interviewees whose parents or other family members worked in STEM careers or were technically inclined were more likely to show early interest in STEM subjects. Comments from interviewees supporting this finding include:

  • “I wanted to be an engineer very clearly around 7th-8th grade. I didn’t know exactly what that meant, but I looked up to my Dad.”
  • "I had a very technically oriented family. My mother and father were engineers who worked with their hands. My dad encouraged my interest, brought me books, and taught me how to fix things myself with my hands."
  • “My grandfather exposed me to electronics. He was a physicist and was into infrared. He got me these encyclopedia science books to help me understand how the world worked. My stepdad was a physicist and was also influential in that sense. And my mom, a CPA, was good at math, so I picked up on that as well.”

2. Children who have early exposure to STEM professionals—along with early encouragement of their interest in STEM—are more likely to view a STEM career as a desirable and viable pathway for themselves.

Conversely, children who had neither early exposure nor early encouragement of STEM often did not understand or have any awareness of viable career paths in STEM fields. Women described not knowing or having anyone in their lives who worked in STEM (especially women) to whom they could relate. Interviewees also said:

  • “I don't think I understood what most jobs were. My mom was a secretary. and I knew what doctors and lawyers did, but I didn’t know what an engineer or scientist did. I knew the jobs of people I looked at every day.”
  • “I was a military brat. Everyone’s mom was teaching at a school where we were stationed, and everyone’s father was an engineer or did some professional work for the military. I never considered doing what my dad did.”
  • “I wanted to be a doctor or a teacher. Both sounded cool, and I knew doctors made lots of money.”
  • "My Dad bought me the Atari that could store code, so I coded a library program. I loved that computers were something that I could control, like when people finally get to drive a car.”
  • “I went to a circuit building class out of nowhere as a kid, and I loved the electronics field a lot more. It was still building things and seeing how they worked, but it was a lot more tangible.”
  • “My Dad was an engineer before becoming a lawyer, and my grandfather was an engineer. I was very close to both. I saw engineering didn’t mean I was necessarily stuck in a lab.”

In our next post, we will talk about preliminary findings for middle- and high-school aged students. While we can't point to early childhood exposure to STEM as the only cause for gender and racial gaps in STEM careers, it does seem that there are opportunities during early childhood for boys and girls to be socialized, exposed, and encouraged in STEM activities that might result in greater opportunity in these fields for women and minorities.

[1] Hill, Catherine and Christianne Corbett. 2015. Solving the Equation: The Variables for Women’s Success in Engineering and Computing. American Association of University Women Report. Washington, DC: American Association of University Women.

[2] Iskander, Tiffany E., Gore, Paul A., and Amy Bergerson. 2013. Gender Differences in Expressed Interests in Engineering-Related Fields ACT 30-Year Data Analysis Identified Trends and Suggested Avenues to Reverse Trends. Journal of Career Assessment. 21(4): 599-613.

[3] Hill and Corbett, p. 103.

[4] National Academy of Sciences. 2006. Beyond Bias and Barriers: Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering. Washington, DC: Natioanl Academy of Sciences.