STEM and the Gender Gap

This afternoon I listened to an NPR Science Friday podcast from August 16.  Hosted by Flora Lichtman, it was a discussion among several professional women about why, 40 years after Title XI was passed to help equalize education (not just sports teams) for women in college, little has changed for women entering STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields.hardhat

This is not a rant about how “the man” is keeping us down and won’t let us play. I’m concerned that many of our country’s brightest people aren’t pursuing degrees and careers in the fields that will grow our economy and keep our country on the cutting edge.

Here is a link to the episode. They’ve also kindly supplied a transcript in case you are like me, and can read faster than you can listen:

STEM and the Gender Gap

What struck me are how some of these concepts about why women don’t finish degrees in STEM, or pursue the careers, are the same now as they were in 1975 when I graduated from high school, or in 1982 when I obtained my chemical engineering degree. I was among 5% of the women in my graduation class in engineering school; in 2012, 30 years later, my friend’s daughter graduated in engineering at the same university and was among….5% women. I’ve written about this before here.

I’d be interested in hearing your experiences and opinions. Some of the things I recall:

  • Asking for chemistry sets or microscopes for Christmas and being given books (acceptable!) or other items. Never the science-y thing.
  • Being steered towards journalism and French in both middle school and high school. I took every math and science class offered, as well as the French and journalism (yearbook and newspaper editor, in fact), except…
  • Not taking physics because I had no idea what it was. I had no mentors.
  • Having an adviser in college tell me I’d be taking away a man’s job. That is, a man who had a FAMILY to support.
  • Being one of two women in my pre-calc class in high school. The other girl was a breathtakingly beautiful cheerleader with bleached platinum hair, whom the boys hovered around like honey bees. When I asked the teacher “Where did you get that?” his answer was often “From the air”. I was made to feel like an outsider. I persevered, but why did it have to be like that?

I’m interested in your experiences.

Categories: Women, Work and Jobs

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8 replies

  1. I am, of course, from an earlier era but what stood out to me in your piece was the same lack of guidance in high school that I attended. I was discriminated against in a socio/economic way because I was from a family that could not afford to send me to college. When I opted to take French and/or Spanish in my sophomore year (in those days you needed a foreign language to get accepted to a decent school), I was told I could not take language since I wouldn’t be going to college and was pointed to (UGH!) manual training and mechanical drawing, both of which I absolutely despised.

    After graduation I was out in the working world before I discovered state college and it’s affordable tuition.

    Is there a parallel to your experience here?

  2. I remember getting a B- in Algebra. I was told, in junior high, that science was not the path for me. I have seen first hand how little boys have trouble reading, and it’s pull out all the stops. Little girls might struggle a bit in math, and it’s perfectly fine. I know now, a little more help, and I would have been fine. It wasn’t worth wasting time helping me to get to the A level needed for me to be accepted into the next level. The high school had limited space in their advanced science and math classes, so in junior high the culling began. If you did not get an A, you were not allowed to take anymore classes in math. you were DONE. If more children had been eligible for these classes, there were not teachers for them.

  3. My mother was what prevented me from pursuing my love of science and math. I took Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Algebra, Geometry, Trig, Calculus, and Analytic Geometry in high school, acing them all. I scored the highest in my class on the New York State Regents exam. My mother insisted that I must go to a missionary college where I would meet a good Christian boy who would marry me and take me to the “foreign fields” to be a missionary’s wife. To my mother this was going to be my only hope to get married which she considered to be the only thing a stupid, ugly girl like me could do.

    Of course, like Joe, I got no help from school counselors in providing me the information I needed about other options for colleges and college financing.

  4. Sharon, wow.

    My mother paid no attention to anything I did in school, which included pretty much the same classes you took. However, she INSISTED I take homemaking (before it was called Home Ec) and made me take typing in high school. You know, so I’d be able to find a job.

    • Matt took typing in high school because he knew from the age of 10 that he wanted to be a software engineer. He was the only guy in a class of women who knew they were supposed to become secretaries because that’s what women do. Matt went to high school at the height of the Women’s Liberation movement in the 70s.


  1. The STEM Gender Gap | Xifu On Tech Ed
  2. A Male Engineering Student Address His Female Classmates, and Wins My Admiration | Two Different Girls

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