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Gender Gap in STEM Fields

By Natalie Bollig
March 25, 2018


Gender Gap in STEM Fields attempts to understand the gender disparity between men and women within STEM. This is done by looking at research that has been done to explain how girls are treated differently in school due to preconceived notions of the mental capabilities of women and how this treatment creates this gender gap despite the contributions women have made to this field.

Throughout history, society and the educational field have favored males over females without any proof to back up the concepts of differences in abilities. Gender norms are being tested and dispelled as researchers study the possibility of cognitive and quantitative differences in learning abilities of boys versus girls. As children, girls and boys have vastly different dreams of what they want to be when they grow up. It usually starts off with boys as firefighters and girls as princesses. Then, jobs evolve to something more realistic; boys gravitate towards STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, math), while girls lean towards “care” jobs, clearly showing a divide in the desires of girls and boys.

The gender gap in STEM fields has a rich history. Women first began to work in STEM during WWII. Since a lot of men were off at war, the US needed women for scientific and engineering advancement towards the war effort (Onion 2014). However, once the war ended, most men took those women’s jobs, and women went back to taking care of the home where education was thought of as not necessary. Since women did not work as often, the rise in STEM jobs fell to the men. Eventually, since most of the STEM jobs were occupied by men, it was commonly believed that only men could succeed in math, science, technology, or engineering.

The history of STEM still defines society today. From 1995-1996, there were twice as many men as women pursuing STEM degrees; 33 percent of men pursued a STEM program, while only 15 percent of women did (CollegeBoard 1996). According to education reporter for U.S. News & World Report, Allie Bidwell, the number of students applying in 2015 for STEM degrees has increased for both genders, with 40 percent of men and 29 percent of women pursuing STEM degrees (Bidwell 2015). Despite the increase of women in STEM fields, men still attain more STEM degrees. The question arises as to what causes this educational disparity between men and women despite teaching all subjects to all students. The gender gap in education still occurs; more boys claim to like science and math, while more girls choose English. Concepts in sociology look to explain why this is.

The stereotypes of girls being unable to learn math and science demonstrate labeling theory. Labeling Theory consists of the idea of the self-fulfilling prophecy and interactions with other people, heavily impacting the way students see themselves. Labeling theory best explains the gender gap issue regarding STEM fields because it explores the idea of gender roles and labels based on interactions and lessons learned in the classroom. Many teachers believe boys outperform girls in math, so they may unknowingly push boys in the STEM direction, demonstrating the self-fulfilling prophecy. Since teachers have such a great impact on students, they can absolutely change the way students look at certain subjects which may lead to certain gendered careers. Girls are taught to take classes that help people while boys are pushed into STEM classes. Labeling Theory can be observed by looking at biology, the interactions with students and peers, and the labeling of certain subjects as masculine or feminine.  

A survey conducted in 1999 illustrates Labeling Theory’s claim. Students with similar mathematical abilities were given a math test. The first group was told that boys perform better on math tests, and the second group was told that boys and girls perform similarly. In the first group, boys scored 20 points more than girls. In the second group, boys scored merely 2 points more (Pollack 2013). When girls were told they would score lower, they demonstrated the self-fulfilling prophecy. Because the first group was told girls are less efficient at math, the girls and boys believed that the statement was true. Because the girls believed it to be true that boys perform better at math, the girls’ confidences were hindered. Girls told themselves they would fail before they even took the exam. The first group labeled boys as superior, while the second group viewed boys and girls as equal. Many teachers label students and believe that the label is an accurate representation of a student’s ability. Therefore, the girls in the first group performed poorly because their label affected their ability to succeed.

Experts debunked the idea that boys understand math better due to biology. Indeed, according to scientists, more boys possess spatial abilities which link to math classes such as geometry. Boys can envision rotating 3D objects better than girls (BBC 2014). On the ACT tests in 2015, boys barely outperformed girls in math and science tests. On average, boys in math received an average score of 21.3 and girls scored an average of 20.4, a 0.9 difference. In science, boys received a 21.3 and girls received an average of 20.6, a difference of 0.2 (Perry 2016). Some educators may look at these scores and conclude that since boys still outperform girls in math and science, boys are better equipped to work in STEM fields. Some educators may still believe it is in their nature as males to gravitate towards STEM fields. The labeling theory claims that if society labels boys as good at math and science due to their biology, then their decisions will reflect that belief. Therefore, boys will decide to pursue math and science classes. Despite these allegations and stereotypes, boys and girls score more similarly as time goes on, indicating that boys and girls are not biologically different in their math and science intelligence. Looking back at 1995, boys in math scored on average 1.1 more points than girls, and boys in science scored on average 1.2 more points than girls which differ with the 0.2 and 0.9 point gap in 2015 (Perry 2016). The ACT score gap has decreased over the last twenty years, meaning girls and boys scored more similarly in 2015 than in 1995. If the pattern continues, boys and girls will score nearly the same in another decade or two. Due to the fact that boys and girls perform similarly on math tests, biology and evolution do not explain the gender gap in STEM fields since girls and boys have lessened the gap in test scores in a relatively short amount of time. Labeling Theory warns of the dangers of promoting stereotypes. Since biology does not play a major factor in girls’ and boys’ performance in math and science, researchers have explored other theories of the gender gap in STEM fields.

The disproportion between boys and girls in STEM education may be due to the treatment and experiences girls and boys face with teachers and each other. Author of The Only Woman in the Room: Why Science Is Still a Boys' Club, Eileen Pollack, interviewed a girl in AP Physics where boys in her math class told her, “girls can’t do physics” (Pollack 2013). The harsh words demonstrate the labeling theory as her peers affected the girl’s perception of science. Another girl mentioned that her teacher said that he was going to have a “boy’s curve” and a girl’s curve” for the test since girls couldn’t possibly do as well as the boys (Pollack 2013). Another girl signed up for the most rigorous AP math course. When she saw she was the only girl in the class, she asked her teacher if she should be there. The teacher scornfully retorted, “if you’re not confident that you should be here…you shouldn’t take the class” (Pollack 2013). In school, teachers do not teach girls to be confident in STEM subjects, for they expect girls to be less capable. Michael Kimmel, an American sociologist specializing in gender studies claimed that when boys shout out an answer, a teacher will more likely thank the boy for sharing his answer. When girls shout out answers, a teacher more likely condemns the girl for not raising her hand. Teachers also ask boys more challenging questions, pushing them to challenge the way they think. They give boys more time to think about their answers and expect less from girls (Kimmel 2000: 210). Due to this preferential treatment, girls may not have the confidence to take hard math or science classes. Teachers favor confident students. Confident students receive more praise, and teachers encourage them to deepen their thinking. Since confident students experience praise, many girls do not ask questions for fear of looking stupid to teachers and boys. If girls do not have the courage to ask questions in Math or English, they may fall even more behind in STEM classes. If a teacher correlates confidence levels with success in his or her classroom, girls will certainly struggle because they lack self-esteem, and teachers may not push them to succeed. Since many people still cling to the belief that only boys can succeed in math, society causes girls to experience the self-fulfilling prophecy when they internalize what boys and teachers tell them. When teachers do not label girls as equal to boys, their labels will continue to stick with students in school and beyond.  

The labeling of Math versus English may also play a part in the gender disparity in STEM fields. Many people consider math and science as more masculine subjects because math seems “black and white” while English appears more feminine. Michael Kimmel interviewed boys and girls, asking them if they preferred Math or English. More boys liked math because it consists of set “rules on how to do things and… there are right and wrong answers. In English, you have [freedom] to write down how you feel” (Kimmel 2000: 215). According to Michelle Hastings, a graduate pursuing a Gender Studies degree, “boys further their learning beyond the girls by increasing their mathematical intuitiveness, a very important skill to have when doing math” (Hastings 2013: 15). Hastings later points out that boys have more abstract thinking when it comes to math. Researchers have different views of female and male creativity. It seems that girls can be creative in English, so why can’t they also be creative in math? Researchers believe boys are more creative in math because boys learn to use problem-solving strategies that teachers inadvertently taught them. Teachers expect the boys to be rowdy while they expect girls to behave. The treatment of girls may hinder them from exploring bold problem-solving as they have been taught to follow the rules all their lives. Therefore, when they encounter a math problem, many girls rely on rules and procedures rather than deeper problem-solving. The labeling theory demonstrates that the way teachers treat their students may relate to how girls react to different subjects. Treating girls differently may make girls lean towards classes that reflect the values and gendered lessons they learned. Being a Math student or English student creates a child’s identity. Society’s feminine and masculine labels further discourage boys and girls from attaining higher education in subjects that oppose their gender labels. Boys and girls both possess creativity. They just need to learn to apply creativity to all the subjects in school, not just their perceived feminine or masculine courses.

Many people question if there is anything wrong with the gender gap in STEM education. These people fail to see that the gender gap leads to a lot of unfair treatment from education to the workplace. The separation of boys and girls in the school only furthers the idea that boys and girls are too different to work together equally. If society continues to teach youth that a STEM education specifically pertains to boys, girls will rarely go after these degrees. Since some individuals believe STEM education is more prestigious, they may respect men more than women. Women should attain STEM schooling to further create equality in society. Women want prestigious, innovative and well-paying jobs. However, they face cultural and social battles that hinder them from achieving their true potential.

While evidence exists in the news that people are becoming more aware of gender inequality, this focus rarely covers STEM inequality. Even if the news does not broadcast the STEM gap, educators are now realizing the gap exists and are making efforts to lower it, but more can be done. Teachers and classmates treat boys and girls differently in the classroom, since “boys will be boys” and “girls will be girls”, according to biology. Therefore, teachers believe they should treat them accordingly, thus perpetuating gender stereotypes. Teachers may unknowingly encourage boys to get a degree in math since some believe girls lack the mathematic ingenuity to succeed. After girls hear all about these stereotypes, beliefs, labels, and social rules, society inadvertently causes girls to shy away from STEM classes. The question arises as to what educators can do to lower this gender gap in STEM education. Perhaps teachers could be required to take a college course regarding gender. By educating teachers about common gender labels, they will be able to notice when they give preferential treatment towards boys. Textbook writers should promote STEM education for girls by putting more female scientists and mathematicians in textbooks. Representation of women in STEM fields could inspire more girls to join math and science clubs or STEM classes. Because girls are perceived as lacking abstract thinking in math and science, teachers should encourage girls at a young age to use creativity in STEM classes. Developing spatial awareness, inspiring ingenuity, and offering more hands-on experiments and projects may help girls further their achievements. Teachers need to build girls’ self-esteem through encouragement and equal treatment.

Educators, along with society, are currently making great strides in their thinking towards gender equality. As women gain even more equality, educators play a prominent part in closing the gender gap in STEM fields. Kids are malleable. Therefore, teachers have the honor and responsibility to play a role in girls’ self-fulfilling prophecies, because once girls believe they will succeed, they will.


Bidwell, A. (2015, January 27). More Students Earning STEM Degrees, Report Shows. Retrieved from https://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2015/01/27/more-students-earning-degrees-in-stem-fields-report-shows 

Hastings, M. N. (2013). The Gender of Mathematics: Math Is Not Born Male. Retrieved from https://epublications.regis.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1618&context=theses

Kimmel, M. S. (2017). The Gendered Society. New York: Oxford University Press Onion, R. (2014, July 13). Unclaimed Treasures of Science. Retrieved from http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/science/2014/07/women_in_science_technology_engineering_math_history_of_advocacy_from_1940.html 

Perry, M. J. (2016, October 8). Gender differences on the ACT test: Boys score higher on math and science; girls score higher on English and reading. Retrieved from http://www.aei.org/publication/gender-differences-on-the-act-test-boys-score-higher-on-math-and-science-girls-score-higher-on-english-and-reading/

Pollack, E. (2013, October 03). Why Are There Still So Few Women in Science? Retrieved March 25, 2018, from https://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/06/magazine/why-are-there-still-so-few-women-in-science.html

Science & Nature - Sex ID - Spatial Abilities. (2014, October 1). Retrieved March 24, 2018, from http://www.bbc.co.uk/science/humanbody/sex/articles/spatial_tests.shtml 

Students in STEM Fields by Gender and Race/Ethnicity. (n.d.). Retrieved March 25, 2018, from https://trends.collegeboard.org/education-pays/figures-tables/students-stem-fields-gender-and-race-ethnicity

Disclaimer: The opinion expressed in each article is the opinion of its author and does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the PUGS editors, Gender Studies program, or UNC. Therefore, PUGS e-zine carries no responsibility for the opinion expressed thereon.