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Girls in science: Gender gaps still persist in STEM subjects

Girls in science and other STEM subjects — technology, engineering, and mathematics — are underrepresented compared to boys despite the progress made in the 40 years since Title IX was signed into law.

By Erik W. RobelenEducation Week / June 27, 2012

Gender gaps in STEM subjects persist today despite gains made by female students in education and athletics during the 40 years since Title IX was signed into law. In this 2005 file photo, a female student takes a sample SAT test during her test prep class.

John Nordell/The Christian Science Monitor

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Evidence abounds that women have made huge inroads in the academic and professional spheres since the federal Title IX law on gender equity in education was enacted 40 years ago.

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More than half those graduating from college each year are women. The percentage of law degrees earned by females climbed from 7 percent in 1972 to about 47 percent in 2011. Likewise, far more women are earning advanced degrees in business and medicine.

Despite the gains, experts say some gender divides are still apparent, especially with participation in the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

Long before women pick a college major or enter the workforce, their K-12 education sets the stage in level of interest, confidence, and achievement in STEM. There, data suggest, some barriers continue to block girls. Heavy gender imbalances persist as well in some areas of career and technical education, from cosmetology to automotive mechanics.

"Broadly speaking, girls and women have made great strides in education," said Lara S. Kaufmann, a senior counsel at the National Women's Law Center in Washington. "The days when girls were told blatantly that they can't take advanced math are over. ... But there are still challenges to equity."

In precollegiate education, the issue is more evident in some STEM disciplines than others.

Recent Advanced Placement data show representation of the sexes to be about the same — or even higher for girls — in certain courses, but some show striking gender contrasts.

For the class of 2011, boys dominated the computer-science course, representing 80 percent of test-takers, as well as the three AP physics courses. Boys accounted for 77 percent of those taking the physics exam for electricity and magnetism and 74 percent of mechanics exams. Also, 59 percent of those taking Calculus BC, the more advanced of two AP courses offered in the subject, were male.

Moreover, data from the AP and the National Assessment of Educational Progress indicate continued achievement gaps between boys and girls in STEM fields, especially science.

At a conference last month in Chicago, Russlynn H. Ali, the U.S. Department of Education's assistant secretary for civil rights, said she sees work to be done at the secondary level.

"Girls are underrepresented ... in those taking AP physics," she said, also noting disparities in math. "We want to study why that is. Obviously, there is ... recruitment that happens on AP. There is a kind of counseling that happens."

In fact, the office for civil rights is investigating a Colorado district to determine whether girls have fair and equitable access to AP math and science, and whether the district adequately prepares them in elementary and middle school for such courses.

Meanwhile, Title IX's restrictions on single-sex education continue to spark debate. The American Civil Liberties Union in May sent "cease and desist" letters to districts in six states, claiming their single-sex programs may violate Title IX. The Education Department's revision of Title IX regulations in 2006 was seen as making it easier for districts to offer single-sex classes.

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