Here is what may be keeping females out of STEM careers – and it’s not because boys are better at math, because they’re not

Reading Time: 5 minutes Certain career fields and majors are still severely gendered, even though it’s been disproven that academic advantages are embedded into XX or XY chromosomes.

Reading Time: 5 minutes

“Boys are better at math” is something many people just accept as a basic truth. However, this has been a scientifically obsolete claim for decades and some researchers even believe this indoctrinated mindset – compounded with other social and cultural influences throughout adolescence and adulthood – may be keeping girls from exploring STEM careers.

This myth has been debunked several times in recent years, including by the 

American Psychological Association. Their 2014 analysis concluded that “perceived or actual differences in cognitive performance between males and females are most likely the result of social and cultural factors.”

A 2005 study by Harvard psychologist, Elizabeth Spelke, Ph.D., and colleagues, was among several investigated by the American Psychological Association. “The studies suggested that men and women on the whole possess an equal aptitude for math and science.”

Standford University Sociology professor, Shelly Correll, elaborates on the effects of buying into the “boys are better at math” mindset when she states that “Boys do not pursue mathematical activities at a higher rate than girls because they are better at mathematics. They do so, at least in part, because they think they are better.”

An additional study investigated by the APA was conducted by psychology professor, Steven Spencer, from the University of Waterloo, alongside colleagues in 1999 found that believing that gender plays a part in math abilities can be harmful to girls. 

According to Spencer’s research, “Women who expected gender differences did significantly worse than men,” whereas “those who were told there was no gender disparity performed equal to men.”

In fact, the idea of “math people,” in general, is believed to be one of, if not the “most self-destructive idea in America today,” according to The Atlantic. “The truth is, you probably are a math person, and by thinking otherwise, you are possibly hamstringing your own career.” 

With no evidence that boys genetically are better at math, it has become somewhat more complex to explain the reason for “gendered” career fields and majors. Not all career fields are gendered, but the ones that are, such as nursing and teaching, compared to engineering and construction, show a significant disparity in gender representation. 

A report compiled by the U.S. Department of Labor, Women’s Bureau shows that registered nurses, elementary and middle school teachers, and secretaries or administrative assistants are the top three most common jobs for women in the labor force. According to Zippia, women hold 86%, 80.5%, and 96% of the jobs in those fields, respectively. 

While women hold the vast majority of jobs in those fields, they are lacking representation in STEM fields, which are more typically associated with masculinity.

The U.S. Census Bureau published an article detailing that although more women are joining STEM fields, they are still severely underrepresented. As of January 2021, “women made gains – from 8% of STEM workers in 1970 to 27% in 2019 – but men still dominated the field. Men made up 52% of all U.S. workers but 73% of all STEM workers.”

“People often think adding diversity means excluding others. It’s not a pie with limited pieces!” said Tori Edwards van Muijen, a UVU junior currently studying Mechatronics

Studies show that companies are significantly better when there’s diversity because everyone has different ideas and approaches.” 

The APA detailed another study conducted by Elizabeth Spelke. Her research led her to believe certain social or cultural factors of influence could take place during adolescence or young adulthood. “Differences in career choices are due not to differing abilities but to cultural factors, such as subtle but pervasive gender expectations that kick in during high school and college.” 

The American Association of University Women published an article in which they claimed that “despite equal levels of ability among boys and girls, a math gap grows over time as girls are discouraged and tracked away from STEM subjects.”

Edwards van Muijen, says that she has experienced gendered influence in high school first-hand. “While I was in high school, I took an interest in joining my brother’s school’s robotics team. For a few months, the boys didn’t talk to me,” seemingly “believing I would never be interested in that sort of thing and must have an ulterior motive.” 

There was even an instance when “another boy told me I shouldn’t be in robotics since I was ‘too pretty’ for it.” Edwards can Muijen notes that stereotypically, “for women, you are either beautiful or smart – not both. And society prefers women to just be beautiful.”

Further evidence provided by the AAUW supports Spelke’s theory of influences on adolescents and young adults receiving an education. “By the time students reach college, women are significantly underrepresented in STEM majors – for instance, only around 21% of engineering majors are women and only around 19% of computer and information science majors are women.” 

Aside from high school and collective influences, it is also possible that being a female in a male-dominated workplace can be intimidating, uncomfortable, and even hostile. Edwards van Muijen says that workplace behavior could be a deterrent for women to get a job in engineering fields or even an incentive to leave. 

In her experience, she has felt that “[men] believe that it is the women’s responsibility to either accept their hostility or leave [the] industry.” She notes that men have a tendency to “not accept responsibility nor change their actions.” She goes on to explain that “unfortunately, many women find it too much to bare and leave.”

Fortunately, Edwards van Muijen does believe that this can get better. “I think as younger, more inclusive men join the industry, it will change. Or, even better, if men hold themselves and each other accountable.”

Women reportedly face several challenges within male-dominated workplaces including, but not limited to higher stress and anxiety levels, sexual harassment, lack of development and mentoring opportunities, as well as pervasive stereotypes – such as “mother” and/or “housekeeper,” and societal expectations about women’s leadership abilities are also common. 

Research done by Laura Doering and Sarah Thébaud for the American Sociological Review, “suggests that women are perceived as less authoritative than men in work contexts.”

Edwards van Muijen has noticed that she and her female peers in the engineering field often feel as though they have to prove themselves to their male counterparts. 

She recounted a conversation she had with the only other woman engineer during her time as a summer intern at Boeing. Edwards van Muijen asked her “how she did it,” referring to gaining the respect of the other engineers. “She lamented that it took her a year of proving herself to the other engineers before they would respect her.”

“This particularly frustrated [the other female engineer] because the man who started at the same time as her with the same credentials was respected immediately.” She feels that there has been a pattern throughout her experiences: “While men are inherently trusted, women often have to prove themselves,” even if they were more qualified from the start.”

She also believes that men undergo struggles in female-dominated fields, but “not to the same degree or in the same way,” because women are nicer and more respectful to men by default. “I think the difference is that men in women-dominated fields still have the automatic respect that they get in male-dominated industries.” Edwards van Muijen says that, at least in her field, “women don’t get that luxury – And typically it’s the men around them that don’t respect them being in a woman-dominated field.

Even though as of fall 2022,  there are more females than males enrolled at UVU, there are still quite a bit of gender disparities among majors. 

The UVU College of Engineering and Technology (CET) says “too many women and girls don’t realize that the STEM field needs them and their unique perspectives and insights,” in its annual report for 2021. It goes on to explain that “Nationwide, only 10% of people in STEM careers are women, and women make up 16% of engineering and technology majors at UVU.”

Edwards van Muijen wants girls who are passionate about math and science or considering pursuing a STEM job to know “Know you will face adversity just because of your gender, but also know there will be allies in those who don’t expect. Let people surprise you, but if they show you who they really are, believe them.”