Project Ascendance | Part II

Racial and Gender Gaps in STEM Participation

Preliminary Findings from Secondary Education

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.

In our previous article, we shared our findings on the impact that early childhood socialization and K-6 education have on gender and minority gaps in STEM careers. This week we're considering the role secondary education and role models play on a child's decision to eventually pursue a STEM career.

As noted in that prior article, beginning even before elementary school, boys and girls are often socialized in a divergent way based on gender stereotypes. Such socialization may push boys to STEM-related activities and negatively affect the ways girls perceive their ability in subjects like math and science. During the early education years, interest and introduction to STEM subjects sets the stage for determining whether students will participate in middle and high school.

That interest is important because, as contemporary research indicates, by the time children reach high school, it is this interest in STEM rather than achievement and ability in STEM subjects, that is the better predictor of whether a child will pursue a STEM education or career in adulthood.[1] To carry this domino effect further, at least one nationally representative study finds that the best predictor of whether a student will have an interest in a STEM career is if he or she was interested in a STEM career at the beginning of school.[2]

Our own research supports this. Through interviews with more than 150 women and minorities in leadership roles—most in STEM fields and/or with computer science degrees—we've developed some preliminary findings on the impact that secondary education has on older children in developing interests and careers in STEM fields. We've groups these findings under two major buckets:

1. Ambitions diverge by gender throughout the education pathway, but key individuals and experiences keep women engaged in STEM. As boys and girls progress through middle school and high school and begin to consider future careers, research demonstrates that their ambitions diverge. Girls tend to gravitate more towards literature and languages while boys are more likely to study physical sciences, mathematics, and history. These gender differences persist even though studies show that girls take equal amounts of mathematics and science courses as boys and earn better grades than boys, on average.[3]

In our conversations with the women we interviewed, many indicated that they pulled away from STEM in middle school and began to focus more on liberal arts and social studies in high school. Those who remained passionate about STEM courses tended to have supportive educators or role models and/or pursued these interests via extracurricular activities. The women we spoke with consistently viewed being a "language and arts person" as incompatible with being a "math and science person." The men we interviewed, however, rarely noted this incompatibility.

Many interviewees indicated they were interested in science by a young age, but by the time they reached high school, this no longer held true. One woman, for example, said, "I didn’t go into high school thinking I was good at math and science. At my high school, it was thought that all the best teachers were in history and English. So, what I perceived as most important to learn was writing." Another said, “By high school, my interests morphed into a love of writing and talking about relative things in the world. I was very interested in community service or social good.”

Women also told us that gifted educators who could make STEM subjects come alive or demonstrate their application in real-world professions were crucial for pivoting girls’ interests by to STEM. For example, one woman told us, "The computer science teacher, who was a woman, told me that my geometry teacher had told her that I was amazing at math. She encouraged me to take her computer science course. I didn't know what it was at the time, but I liked her and I liked math, so I said sure. I thought all smart girls became teachers and got married, but that class and those teachers completely changed my outlook on career choices. So instead of talking about teaching, I had conversation about going to a school that prioritizes computer science.

Women and minorities interviewees alike also told us that while formal extracurricular activities were important in keeping them interested in STEM subjects throughout middle school and high school, informal activities like building and video games were also important. One minority man told us, "I played video games in fifth grade. In those early days, you had to write your own software if you wanted to do anything. I would fill notebooks with code and then type it in to try and make it work. So, I was programming from the very, very beginning." And a woman explained, "When I was in fifth grade, one of my best friends worked at one of the tech game companies. My sister and I really loved playing them, so we taught ourselves BASIC, the programming language, so we could make our own games or stories. That was a really compelling experience for both of us.”

2. There's a missing link between STEM pursuits in high school and students' interest in directly helping individuals and/or society. Creating those connections keeps more women engaged in STEM careers. There is a small but meaningful gender difference in boys' and girls’ desire to work in professions that allow them to work with and help people. Women are more likely to prioritize work that aligns with these interests.[4] STEM professions are not often thought of as being socially relevant or directly contributing to solutions to social problems. These perceptions help perpetuate the underrepresentation of women in these fields.

Women we talked to explained that during high school, they didn't understand how they could apply STEM coursework to “real world” problems or social purposes, creating a barrier between interest and meaningful career. One woman explained how her math and science courses were difficult for her, partly because they didn't seem relevant. "I didn't understand why math and science mattered, or what the connection was between the classroom lessons and the world around me."

Like the educators who could bring STEM subject matters alike, educators who could link STEM studies to real-world problems were described as particularly effective, memorable, and inspiring to the women we spoke with. One woman said, "I thought engineering was about trains! I went to an engineering day and met my soon-to-be advisor. He was enthusiastic and energetic and talked about how math made the world go around. That was when I changed my focus to engineering."

It is our hope that the findings in this article series contribute to the conversation around creating more opportunities to engage and advance women and minorities in STEM careers. Doing so can have a real, tangible impact on the professional gender divide that is particularly exacerbated in STEM. Please share your comments, ideas, and suggestions—and stay tuned for information, data, and tools from Project Ascendance. 

[1] Maltese & Tai, 2011; Benbow, 2012

[2] Sadler et al., 2012

[3] JS Eccles (1994). Women’s educational and occupational choices. Psychology of Women Quarterly 18:585-609.

[4] AAUW. 2015. Solving the Equation: The Variables for Women’s Success in Engineering and Computing