A Lack of Women in Upper Level STEM Classes: Why Does Mariemont Have a Gender Gap?


(PHOTO FROM https://innovationatwork.ieee.org)

Olivia Simpson, Writer


STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. STEM classes revolve around these four disciplines, separate or together. At Mariemont High School, students have a variety of STEM class options including: Computer Programming, Computer Science, Engineering, and then your math and science classes. There is also an overwhelming amount of advanced or honors STEM classes: AP Biology, AP Chemistry, AP Physics, AP Environmental Science, AP Calculus AB, AP Calculus BC, AP Statistics, AP Computer Science. 

In the 2020-2021 school year: AP Physics had zero girls and five guys, Engineering had roughly six girls and 20 boys, AP Calculus AB had roughly fifteen girls and fifteen boys, AP Calculus BC had one girl and 11 boys, Multivariable Calculus had zero girls and three boys, and Robotics Club had four boys for every one girl. So to answer the question, does Mariemont have a gender gap in its upper level STEM classes, the simple answer is yes. In almost every upper level STEM class, not including Calculus AB, the amount of boys outnumber the girls, significantly.

This problem, however, is worldwide. The number of women receiving STEM degrees is statistically low. According to Western Governors University, women, nationwide, make up 18 percent of computer science bachelor degrees, 20 percent in engineering, 42 percent in math, and 19 percent in physical sciences. This low number of women with STEM degrees translates into an even smaller number of women working in STEM fields, with only 15 percent of science and engineering jobs being held by women. Ultimately, with women pursuing degrees at the same rate as men (according to the US Department of Education women make up 56 percent of undergraduate students), this gender gap isn’t due to a lack of women, but a lack of women seeking STEM degrees. 

So why aren’t there more women pursuing STEM degrees? According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a government agency focused on student’s test scores, males and females perform just as well on mathematics standardized tests: the tests are given in the fourth and eighth grade and there was no significant difference between males and females. Thus, the problem isn’t an issue of performance, but it is the result of who is getting recommended for higher level STEM classes.  

In a study of a math acceleration program in Wake County, North Carolina, third grade males and females each qualified, with a high enough state math test score, to be recommended for higher math classes at around the same rate (46% of students who qualified were females and 54% were males). However when it came down to who was actually getting nominated to take the class, males were nominated at higher rates (of those nominated, 61% were males and 39% were females). Students had the ability to get nominated by either their teacher or parent, but a student needed both a qualifying score and nomination to get recommended for the course. In the end, this acceleration program was allowing qualified girls, who lacked a nomination, to be held back, while their equally qualified male counterparts, who had a nomination, were able to move up in math. By enforcing a nomination, the ability for a student to take a higher level math class rests on the shoulders of their teacher, and due to inherent bias and gender norms, the nomination process would seem to almost always hurt the girls. The process of recommending students for higher level STEM classes, throughout the country, indirectly creates a gender gap. 

So how does this initial gender gap play out? It gets wider: as the number of girls decreases it will almost always continue to decrease. Junior, Alexandra Purdy is one of the few girls in engineering this year and she said, “I know that I would be more intimidated and less motivated and probably wouldn’t have decided to take the class if I didn’t have fellow female friends in my class to support me.” Most girls don’t want to be the one, or one of the only girls, in their class and therefore many may decide to opt out of high-level STEM class if they are one of the few girls. 

Another reason for the gender gap is a lack of female role models in these upper level STEM classes. At Mariemont high school, the six-teacher math department has two females (and all the AP math teachers are males), the computer science teacher is a male, and the engineering teacher is a male. However, in the science department only two of the six teachers are males. Overall a majority of the upper level STEM teachers are males, which is a fact that hinders some girls from seeing females in fields or careers that they are interested in. Young people, and young women in particular, benefit from seeing adults that look like them, excelling in a subject they are passionate about, for it allows them to imagine themselves in a similar role. Therefore, Purdy feels that a good step in narrowing the gender gap would be “hiring more female faculty into these positions.” 

Ultimately however, the biggest cause of the gender gap is an indifference. For the few girls who get recommended and who stick with the class, many might feel isolated and as if no one is on their side. If they are the only girl, in a class full of boys taught by a male teacher, it makes sense that they might feel alone. Therefore, it is up to the teachers and staff to encourage and push these young women to see themselves as having the potential to be successful in these fields. The problem will not go away by pretending it doesn’t exist, it can only be solved by purposefully working to acknowledge and then rectify it.  

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