Blog Miscellaneous

Gender Disparities with STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics)

shallow focus photography of microscope
by Tyresa Jackson:

Starting in elementary school, the importance of increasing cultural and gender competence is an integral part of developing students’ confidence to pursue studies in fields deemed challenging, like mathematics and the sciences.  In particular, there are large disparities in the number of African-American women pursing an education and careers in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) related fields.  These disparities demonstrate a larger problem within education standards, gender bias and stereotypes. 

Dr. Chandra Prescod-Weinstein is the 63rd African-American woman to attain a doctorate in physics. Dr. Prescod-Weinstein specializes in theoretical physics, and further reading raised a few questions:  What are astrophysicists, and why are there a small number of African-American women for who attain PhDs in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) related fields?  Both globally and domestically, there are major differences in girls educated in STEM[Office1] .  [NE2] 

According to the National Girls Collaborative Project, fifty-seven percent of bachelor degrees earned in all fields were earned by women, however, nineteen percent of bachelor’s degree within engineering were earned by women, compared to eighty-one percent of men.  Further, thirty-nine percent of physics degrees were earned by women compared to sixty-one percent of men.

Girls in STEM

Gender disparities between boys and girls pursuing STEM related courses is evident starting in primary school and are due to an array of factors, including societal, familial, and cultural influences.  Although, access to education for women and girls have improved globally, disparities in the access to a basic education still persist, thereby influencing the gender gap in STEM education.

To demonstrate, a study conducted in the United Kingdom, found at ages ten to eleven both boys and girls equally engaged in STEM education (75% of boys and 72% of girls), and reported learning interesting things in science.  Later, at the age of eighteen, these numbers changed to 33% of boys and 19% of girls learning something interesting things in science (UNESCO, 2017). 

Within the United States, disparities in STEM span across both gender and racial lines[Office3] .  For example, in the American College Testing (ACT) publication—The Condition of STEM 2016, it reported 30,057 African American students tested in mathematics, science and STEM; of those students tested, twenty-five percent met ACT college math readiness standards, twenty-two percent met ACT science college readiness standards, and nine percent met ACT college STEM readiness standards.  Comparatively, 23,102 Asian-American students took the ACT, and eighty percent met ACT college readiness standards, sixty-eight percent met ACT science college readiness standards, and fifty-four percent met ACT STEM college readiness standards. 

On balance, in total, there were 162,878 male test takers, and forty-one percent met ACT STEM college readiness standards.  Moreover, in total, there were 185,769 female test takers, and twenty-six percent met ACT STEM college readiness standards.

African American Girls in STEM

Over the past century, African-American women have made great strides in STEM related careers, including Katherine Johnson, a mathematician at NASA, Mae Jemison-NASA astronaut, engineer, and physician, and now, Chandra Prescod-Weinstein, a physicist.  Despite these advances, African-American women continue to fall behind their counterparts in pursuing STEM related education and careers[Office4] .  According to the National Science Foundation, Division of Science Resources and Statistics, in 2006, one percent of African-American women were employed as scientist and engineers compared.

Studies have found that African-American and Hispanic girls say they have an interest in STEM, but have less exposure, less adult support, lower academic achievement, and are more aware of gender barriers.  Also, once an African-American student is identified as low performing, they are tracked from primary through secondary education, and placed in lower-level courses (DeSena & Ansalone, 2009; “Teaching Inequity”, 1989). Furthermore, social science has found internalizing gender stereotypes of being insufficient, leads to low performance in STEM courses (Girls Scouts of the USA/Girl Scout Research Institute, 2012).

If we are to increase the likelihood of more African American women attaining a PhD in physics or other STEM related fields we must cultivate an educational environment that increases intellectual aptitude by incorporating calculus, chemistry, physics as part of the mandatory curriculum starting in primary education. 

With the support of family, teachers, and positive adults, African-American girls, and girls throughout the world can dismember negative stereotypes and cultivate a generation of women scientist and mathematicians[Office5] .  Teachers and faculty alike, starting from elementary through post-secondary must provide additional supports (e.g., STEM afterschool programs and culturally competent class material); further, recruiting more women teacher of diverse cultures who are educated in a STEM related field, in, turn, removes the stigma girls are not smart enough.

The importance of encouraging African-American girls and women to pursue STEM related fields, in turn, can increase their representation in higher education.  Additionally, in higher education many students of color face difficulties completing math and science courses, and therefore, diversifying curriculum development and implementation can bring forth unique ways to teach African-American students, and other students of color, for example, using pedagogy.    

To conclude, parents and caretakers alike are encouraged to place children in STEM after-school programs and summer camps, which increases intellectual abilities-critical thinking, mathematics skills, and reading. Gender equity begins with simple words of encouragement and supporting girls by allowing them to take challenging math and science course along with having tutoring and additional systems. 

Pasted below, are STEM programs parents and caretakers alike can place their children within.

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About the author:

Tyresa Jackson is a graduate student in the Masters of Public Administration program (Public Policy and Administration), with a specialization in law and administration at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.  Prior to matriculating into John Jay College of Criminal Justice, she earned a Bachelor of Art in International Political Economy and Diplomacy with a minor in Mass Communications from the University of Bridgeport.  

While living in Bridgeport, Connecticut, she served on the Juvenile Review Board, which provided restorative justice recommendations to at-risk-youth in the Bridgeport community.  Later, she moved to Chicago, where she served as a board member on Illinois Collaboration on Youth Advisory Board (ICOY).  Her passions include, closing the education-to-prison pipeline, education reform, and increasing the number of women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math).  In her free time, she enjoys reading, writing, volunteering, and participating in 5K runs.