Why do gender disparities remain in STEM?

From the age of three, children have learnt traditional associations between gender and job roles (Hilliard & Liben 2010).  I experienced that first hand recently when a 3½ year old pointed to a major hardware store and claimed “That’s where boys go to get their hammers and nails.” How did that happen? (His mother is an engineer and his father a stay-at-home Dad!)

Gender roles create this focus at very early ages. They orient boys to exploring the physical world, finding out how things work, and growing their interest in problem solving, status and financial gain. Girls on the other hand are oriented towards being socially skilled and helpful, to have a primary concern on family, and to emphasize activities that are relationship-based (Dasgupta & Stout 2014).


Alarmingly, in primary school, parents have lower expectations for their daughters’ maths and science abilities than for their sons. Girls’ efforts are attributed to their conscientiousness and hard work, while boys’ efforts are attributed to innate talent (Stout, Dasgupta, Hunsinger, McManus 2010). On average, mothers apply gender stereotypes about STEM more than fathers do, and mothers’ support is a stronger predictor of adolescent girls’ motivation to persist in STEM.

It’s no wonder then that six to nine year old girls have implicit beliefs that maths and science are associated with boys, and believe that they are not as good at maths as boys. These beliefs not only far exceed any actual performance differences, (Stefens, Jelenec & Noack 2010), but precede differences in test scores (Dasgupta & Stout 2014).

Implicit, unconscious maths-gender stereotypes are a better predictor of girls’ academic self-belief, academic achievement, and enrolment preferences than the beliefs they express. What you see is not necessarily what you get. Implicit gender stereotypes are an important factor in the dropout of female students from fields that rely on maths (Stefens, Lelenec & Noack 2010).

Very recent data in the US shows that boys’ and girls’ grades in high school science and maths are equal (Shumow & Schmidt 2010). In Australia in 2007, there was no difference in achievement of girls and boys in Year 4, but there was in Year 8, where boys out-achieve girls on both maths and science. This suggests that gender stereotypes about STEM may be much stronger in Australia than in the US (although it would be good to access more recent data).

In a study by Shumow & Schmidt (2010), high school science teachers spent an average 39% more time addressing boys in class (not explained by student initiation), identified boys exclusively to pursue a career in science, and described boys as smart and curious, and girls as hard-working and conscientious. There was a contradiction between the teachers’ explicitly stated beliefs that they were not biased, and their implicit beliefs. The science teachers’ implicit beliefs, their classroom practices, and the gendered motivational patterns of their students were consistent.

Besides the impact of classroom engagement, girls’ decisions to pursue STEM subjects and take advanced classes are influenced by how well their female friends performed in these classes in the previous year: how well male friends perform had no impact (Dasgupta & Stout 2014). Collaboration in the classroom is a particularly important element affecting girls’ decisions to pursue STEM. Where there is a stronger collaboration environment, girls show more interest, achieve better grades and express stronger aspirations. And again, most of this is operating at the implicit level.

Girls’ motivation to pursue studies and careers in maths and sciences diminishes as they finish high school, and they are much less likely to enrol in STEM degrees. There remains a gender bias in fields of study at university, with many more young men studying science, IT and engineering related subjects, and women predominating in fields such as health, education and the arts.

More women than men transfer out of STEM majors at university, narrowing the field even further (Stout, Dasgupta, Hunsinger & McManus 2014). One of the reasons for this may be that when women are solo, their sense of belonging and confidence decreases. Their performance erodes. They may feel isolated and dissatisfied with their work environment (Dasgupta, McManus and Hunsinger 2015).

Engagement with teachers during university degrees has a major impact for young women. Women express more positive implicit attitudes to maths, show more positive identification with the subject, increase their effort on difficult tests, and feel more confident of their ability when they:



This does not occur when they engage with male professors, or are exposed to male biographies. Even where the female students outperform their fellow male students, they were less confident about their performance when they engaged with male role models. When they had female professors, girls spoke up more in class and were much more likely to ask for help from their professors outside of class.

A further consideration is girls’ apparent preference for taking an applied perspective. STEM subjects tend to be downplayed for their real-world problem solving value. Dasgupta & Stout (2014) suggest that increasing the social, service and collaboration elements of STEM would lead to greater engagement by girls.

Salary differences are apparent very soon after starting work. Three years following graduation, Australian men with a postgraduate degree have a median annual salary of $96,000, while women’s is $80,000. The highest salaries were in Engineering and Management – for women median salaries were $96,000 in Engineering and $90,000 in Management while for men, median salaries were $100,000 in Engineering and $110,000 in Management. (And even in traditionally female dominated areas, such as Health and Education, men are paid more.)

A number of factors impede women scientists’ early career advancement, even when they have the same qualifications as male scientists. Male and female faculty make biased hiring decisions, preferring male candidates over female candidates (Moss-Racusin, Dovido, Brescoll, Graham & Handelsman 2012).  Male candidates are seen as more competent, more worthy of mentoring and deserving of a higher salary than female candidates. Letters of recommendation show similar bias: recommendations for males emphasize research skills, publications and career aspirations whereas teaching skills, practical clinical skills and personal attributes are more often identified for females (Dasgupta & Stout 2014).

As careers progress, female scientists are less likely to receive grants. Even when the objective productivity of female and male researchers is the same, peer reviewers rate the female as less competent and that decreases the likelihood of receiving the grant (Dasgupta & Stout 2014).

And Nobel Laureate Tim Hunt’s recent comments  about female scientists, including “I have fallen in love with people in the lab and people in the lab have fallen in love with me, and it’s very disruptive to the science” give further life to the challenges women face. Women in STEM feel isolated, excluded from informal social gatherings, report fewer opportunities to collaborate with senior faculty, and inadequate professional mentoring (Dasgupta & Stout 2014).

Caregiving responsibilities affect women’s careers more than men’s, with inadequate childcare facilities, reduced ability to travel to conferences, and absence from the conference circuit, all of which impact immediate and longer term opportunities, including the opportunity to achieve international recognition and advancement.

An emerging area of research that has a big potential to remedy the above is being explored by Nilanjana Dasgupta, who has found that female majority groups have a big impact on female first year science students. Women participate more, have increased confidence, feel more positively challenged and have higher career aspirations. This effect is particularly pronounced in their first year. And gender parity is not enough.

And likewise recognition of the need for more effort here comes through BHP Billiton’s recent $22m support for increasing participation in maths, which includes funding a career awareness campaign aimed at girls. As CEO Andrew McKenzie says “Any increase in STEM participation is good news but an increase in female representation is especially valuable because of the undeniable benefits of diversity.

This may feel like a long litany of problems, but actually it’s just the same problem manifesting in a number of different ways. Central to the challenge is the same issue: implicit or unconscious gender beliefs. Implicit beliefs affect decisions we make for our daughters, our sisters, our colleagues and ourselves. Whether or not girls are supported, encouraged and successful in STEM is largely based on implicit gender associations that link women with family and men with careers, and women with the humanities and men with science. Here’s what we can do:



This post originally appeared on the Centre for Workplace Leadership at the University of Melbourne blog.

Share This