STEM Not for Women?

How gender stereotypes stop women from becoming programmers and engineers

A study by Natalia Maloshonok and Irina Shcheglova, research fellows of the HSE University, examines how and why gender stereotypes can disempower female students, leading to poor academic performance and high dropout rates. According to the study, more than one in three (35%) young women have been led to believe in men’s superior mathematical ability.

Women’s Share

Gender imbalance starts in secondary school, continues through high school and further increases in university, with few female undergraduates choosing science and engineering as majors. The final stage of this negative selection occurs in the workplace.

In Russia, the proportion of female students in STEM-related undergraduate and specialty courses varies from one-quarter to one-third, depending on the area of study. In 2018, according to the Ministry of Education and Science data, women accounted for just 26% of students in Engineering, Technology and Technical Sciences undergraduate courses, 27% in Computer and Information Sciences courses, almost a third (31%) in Mathematics and Mechanics, and 32% in Physics and Astronomy. This data is consistent with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) indicators for Russia: at bachelor’s level, just 35% of graduates in STEM are women.

Maloshonok and Shcheglova suggest that this imbalance could largely be due to gender stereotypes. In order to test their hypothesis, the researchers analysed data from the Study of Undergraduate Performance (SUPER-test) , an international comparative study of engineering students’ educational achievement carried out by HSE in cooperation with Stanford University and others.

More than 2,600 first-year undergraduates were surveyed in the autumn of 2015. In the spring of 2017, dropout data was collected on the same students. The researchers examined data on undergraduates in 17 engineering and computer science majors, including fundamental informatics, applied informatics, mathematics, information systems, software engineering, radio engineering, electronics, laser technology, photonics, and others.

Dropout Paradox

Although some internationally published papers suggest that women are less likely to persist in STEM field majors, while male gender is a predictor of students’ intention to persist in the computer science major beyond the introductory course, HSE researchers found the opposite to be true, namely that young men were more likely than young women to drop out from STEM majors, e.g. by 7% (19% versus 12% for women) for engineering and by 5% (22% versus 17%) for computer science.

This may reflect an important distinction between universities in Russia and other countries in terms of their tuition fee systems. In Russia, most students’ tuition fees are subsidised by the state, and the most common reason for student dropout is involuntary expulsion for academic failure. In contrast, many students in the U.S. pay for their own tuition, and a significant proportion of those who drop out do so voluntarily.

‘The fact that their tuition is subsidised can be a strong incentive for young women to complete their major even if they are dissatisfied with their training and experience as students,’ the researchers conclude.

Risk propensity–believed to be higher in young men–may be another factor explaining the gender-based differences in student dropout rates. It has been shown that risk-prone students are more likely to drop out.

It follows from the above that on average, female undergraduates in STEM majors perform better academically than their male counterparts and are more likely to complete their studies. But is it possible to reduce the dropout rates of female students even further? What is the main reason behind their choice to leave: being overwhelmed by the curriculum or something else?

Sadly, gender stereotypes seem to be at play here as well. Not only do they affect young women’s interest in exact sciences and the choice of career in STEM, but even more importantly, they can undermine female students’ confidence in their ability to compete successfully with men.

Passing through Filters

Many female undergraduates have heard time and again that their mathematical ability is less than that of their male counterparts, often undermining the women’s motivation to persist towards a degree in related fields. ‘For some young women, this can lead to dropout or to giving up on their chosen career following graduation,’ according to the researchers.

‘Dropout risks increase for girls who believe that boys have better mathematical ability, and 35% of female students in our sample share this belief,’ Shcheglova comments. Her co-author Maloshonok confirms that ‘this group of female undergraduates are 57% more likely to drop out than male students.’

Despite research findings which indicate women’s better performance in STEM, ‘These arguments are usually ignored,’ according to the engineer Anna S. ‘Even when you are good academically, others may be able to convince you before your final year in university that succeeding in “men’s domain” is beyond your ability. Over time, many women decide that they are likely to hit the glass ceiling there anyway, and may be better off elsewhere.’

But where does this ‘women cannot succeed at STEM’ stereotype come from? In fact, no gender difference in the quality of publications has been found in existing scientific papers authored by men and women worldwide. ‘However, for some reason, it is widely believed that ladies do not have a brain for mathematics,’ says the physicist Natalya. ‘I remember a male fellow-student saying that women were not able to think rationally and did not have the “mathematical clarity of mind.” It was the perfect demotivator.’ Natalya admits having doubts about her own abilities after hearing that.

The researchers compare these gender stereotypes to a tough filter that far from all women are able to pass. Needless to say, any stereotypes about women’s lack of ability in mathematics are totally untrue.

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