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.
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Title IX is best known for promoting equal access to athletic programs for girls and women. But its reach is far broader, including such areas as sexual harassment and the rights of pregnant and parenting teenagers, as well as academic study in K-12 and higher education.
Before Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, many colleges and universities excluded women or set quotas and other policies, such as access to financial aid, that limited their enrollment, experts say. (Title IX generally does not cover admissions policies at private, four-year colleges, or at traditionally single-sex public institutions.)
At the K-12 level prior to Title IX, girls were often steered away from challenging academic coursework, especially in math and science, and if they were to consider a career outside the home, they often would be encouraged to pursue teaching or secretarial work. Girls also were routinely prevented from enrolling in vocational courses such as shop, which could be a pathway into a career, while boys often could not take home economics.
"Girls in school, if you mentioned that you wanted to be [a doctor], you were told that it was very hard to do and were overtly discouraged," said Bernice Sandler, a senior scholar at the Women's Research and Education Institute in Washington. "The assumption was that girls grow up, get married, and don't work."
"All kinds" of policies and practices limited opportunities for young women in high school and college, she added. Educators frequently conveyed the message, " 'You don't really want to take advanced math, do you?' It was often subtle but sometimes not," she said.
Many experts say Title IX has been an important driver of change for women in academics and careers, though it's not clear how much was specifically advanced by the law as distinguished from other societal shifts.
"It's all mixed together in some melting pot of forces, economic and cultural and legal, that has moved women forward," said Leila Brammer, a professor of communications studies at Gustavus Adolphus College, in St. Peter, Minn., who has written on Title IX. "And yet there are these blind spots where things haven't happened as fast, or just haven't happened."
Concern remains widespread about the relative lack of women pursuing advanced study and careers in STEM fields. Recent federal data show just one-quarter of people working in those fields are women; one in seven engineers is female. Also, women trailed men in earning doctorates in many STEM fields, as of 2009, including computer science, engineering, chemistry, and math.
"Computing has one of the worst gender representations of any STEM discipline," said Lucinda M. Sanders, the chief executive officer and co-founder of the National Center for Women & Information Technology, based in Boulder, Colo. "When you do find computing in high school, and it is rigorous, girls are very seldom represented in the classroom."
Girls have made clear gains to close the achievement gap in math over time, based on NAEP. Results from 2011 show boys with a 1 point edge on the NAEP scale in the 4th and 8th grades. That difference is considered statistically significant.
In science, the gap is bigger, and widens at the secondary level.
NAEP science data for 2009 showed boys outperforming girls in the 4th, 8th, and 12th grades. The biggest gap was in 12th grade, where 26 percent of boys scored "proficient" or above, compared with 19 percent of girls. AP data for the class of 2011, meanwhile, show that in every STEM subject tested, the average score for girls trailed that of boys.
But Mimi E. Lufkin, the CEO of the National Alliance for Partnerships in Equity—a consortium of public and private entities based in Cochranville, Pa., that seeks to promote equity and diversity in classrooms and workplaces—points to another problem.