A report by the American Association of University Women entitled “Why So Few” shows that while 29.3% of entering college men plan to major in a STEM field, only 15.1% of women do. These numbers include all STEM fields, which encompasses all areas of science, math, engineering, and technology. The biological sciences tend to attract the greatest number of women. Removing the biological sciences from the equation, just over 20% of entering men planned to major in physical sciences, engineering, or computer science, while only about 5% of women planned to major in those fields.
These figures are important because career choice is one major reason that women often earn less money than men. For example, in 2011 the average starting salary for a new computer science graduate was $63,017, according to the annual survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers. In contrast, grads in fields such as social work and elementary school education, which attract much larger numbers of women than computer science, can expect a starting salary of $35000 or less.
Why do girls seemingly have less interest in studying STEM subjects than boys, even though it is well recognized that their capabilities in those areas are no less? Studies show that multiple factors are involved, but one major issue is societal stereotypes such as “girls aren’t as good at math as boys”:
If a girl believes that most people, especially those in her immediate environment,
think boys are better than girls at math, that thought is going to affect her, even if she doesn’t believe it herself. (Why So Few, p.45)
Additionally, female teachers who themselves have math anxiety, may convey that anxiety to their female students and impair their confidence. A new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which followed seventeen 1st and 2nd grade teachers and their classes over the course of a year, found that near the beginning of the year, both boys and girls had comparable math performance. However, the study found that as the year progressed, the more anxious the teacher was, the more anxious the female students became. Subsequently, their performance in the subject had declined by the end of the year.
Fortunately, this trend can be counteracted. In order to gain the confidence they need to succeed in math and science, it is important that girls be taught that academic abilities are malleable and not set in stone. A study by the Institute of Education Sciences’ What Works Clearinghouse made the following conclusion:
"Explicitly teach students that academic abilities are expandable and improvable in order to enhance girls' beliefs about their abilities. Students who view their cognitive abilities as fixed from birth or unchangeable are more likely to experience decreased confidence and performance when faced with difficulties or setbacks. Students who are more confident about their abilities in math and science are more likely to choose elective math and science courses in high school and more likely to select math- and science-related college majors and careers."
“It’s really important that we give girls positive messages about their potential and capabilities as early in life as possible,” said Melissa Montanez. “To counteract the societal stereotypes and other negative influences, we need to make a real effort to let girls know that they too have the potential to be good at math and science.”
Technigirl (http://technigirl.com) was founded in 2011 to create and sell intelligent clothing and other products for girls. The company’s mission is to encourage girls to be proud of their intelligence, encourage them to study STEM subjects, and to help build their intellectual confidence from birth onward.
If you’d like more information about this topic, or to schedule an interview with Melissa Montanez, please contact Melissa at (512)695-5856 or Melissa@technigirl.com.