When does the STEM gender gap start?

There is some evidence pointing to growing momentum in getting women to participate in cryptocurrency and blockchain, although the road to gender parity remains long.

Coverage of this issue often alludes to limited female participation in STEM careers, which seems to remain capped somewhere between 10 and 30% per each STEM field.

But why?

What are the barriers to entry that are keeping women from pursuing technology, engineering, and math careers? When exactly do these barriers emerge?

And until we get clarity on these points, how do we expect to successfully balance out involvement in the industry between the genders?

Fortunately, there is data out there that sheds some light into potential answers to these questions. Let’s consider the course of an individual’s education, and see if we can glean anything from the relative performance of the two genders at various time points along the way. The research cited in this article is US based.

The gender gap is evident in colleges and universities.

We know there’s a gender gap evident in the hiring patterns of STEM jobs. Is this difference intrinsic to the work force—meaning, is the volume of qualified female STEM professionals smaller than the number of males available?

The STEM gender gap persists through degree and certificate programs.

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The data points to “yes,” there are fewer women than men getting formal education in STEM disciplines.

Although the total number of women getting STEM degrees and certificates has steadily increased between 2008 and 2016—the time period for which this data was available and compiled—so has the total number of men doing the same. There is a persistent gap between the two groups that does not seem to be resolving.

What is the source of this gap? Is there a difference in the demonstrated aptitude of male versus female students studying STEM subjects? If you’re declaring an outraged “no,” we hear you—but we should look and see what the data tells us.

There is no significant difference in math performance between the two genders.

Fortunately, we have data available that gauges the performance—broken down into boys’  and girls’ scores—of students on standardised tests in mathematics.

No significant difference between how female and male students perform in elementary math.No significant difference between how female and male students perform in elementary math.

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As you can see in the graphs above, there are no significant differences between the two genders’ performance on these exams. In fact, the boys’ and girls’ trends in performance over time seem to closely parallel each other. This data is from fourth graders, but we see the same pattern reflected in subsequent grades, through the eighth grade.

What about in high school?

The gender gap appears in choice of high school electives.

For most students, high school is the first time that they start to have a choice in the classes they take. Looking at the choices that students make, we can start to start to see trends in preferences and tie this in with other educational data.

High school reveals more boys choose applied math & logic courses.

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Although still considered hard sciences, subjects like biology and statistics are often colloquially considered to be “softer.” Incidentally, women tend to prevail in choosing to study these subjects. The playing field gets to be a bit more even between the genders when it comes to chemistry and the first part of calculus.

But as the perceived rigor of the subjects intensifies, the discrepancy between male and female participation grows. More male students choose Calculus BC than female students; this pattern only intensifies with physics, and then even more so with computer science.

To see this pattern so clearly evident in the choices high schoolers make is telling. And since high school comes before anyone has even committed to college or any other degree program, this might account heavily for the persistent gender gap noted earlier.

The ways in which we encourage effort should be the same regardless of a student’s gender.

More research needs to be done into this, but the work that’s been completed so far points to gender differences in the classroom that affect the course of student development.

One study conducted by reputed gender bias researchers Myra and David Sadker paved the way for further classroom studies, which have only continued to confirm their findings as persisting over two decades later. In that study, elementary and middle school boys were found to call out their answers eight times more frequently than their girl peers. When girls called out, they were chided and told “raise your hand if you want to speak.” Again, this sort of distinction between the treatment of male and female students has been replicated by other studies.

Studies have also shown that an individual’s fear and anxiety about math can hurt their ability to perform well in the subject, with absolutely no reflection of their actual aptitude. Researchers have shown that female teachers­—who, incidentally, form over 90% of the elementary teaching work force—who were anxious about math (as determined via survey) transferred this anxiety specifically to their female students. The more anxious the female teachers were, the more their female students were shown by the end of the year to identify with the stereotype of “boys are good at math, and girls are good at reading.”

There are still more institutional problems that continue to reinforce the gender gap in STEM. We covered a couple of them above, but further studies are still needed to dig even deeper into these questions of how male and female students are treated differently—and how this leads students down different paths.

What’s next?

There has been progress in the programming available to facilitate STEM involvement for girls and women, and there are many resources available for females of any age to tap into, whether for crypto and blockchain or otherwise. However, we cannot assume that this issue is now “resolved.” As the data presented above illustrates, the resolution of the gender participation gap is not just a matter of time.

Fortunately, there are many potential ways in which we can tackle these problems and strive for resolution. From mentorships to visible female leaders, through conscientiousness regarding how we discuss success and describe opportunity, there are a vast number of ways in which we can improve on both education and work­—and help even out the playing field not just for women, but for people of all backgrounds and abilities. In future posts, we will dig deeper into some of these solutions.

For now, we urge you to brainstorm what measures you’d like to see or possibly even effect yourself—to be more conscientious regarding the ways in which males and females are addressed differently.