Why STEM Fields Still Don't Draw More Women

Published in the Chronicle of Higher Education on October 29, 2012

There have been many efforts in recent years to draw more women into STEM fields. While women have made gains, they are still far less likely than men to major in such fields, especially engineering and computer science. Why? The Chronicle of Higher Education asked a group of scholars and experts to respond.

[Matt McGann, Director of Admissions, was among the experts who were asked to respond. Read Matt's response below.]

Each year I have the privilege of reading the applications of thousands of our nation's most promising young women interested in the STEM fields. I am often saddened and occasionally infuriated by the experiences of these extraordinary women, who have faced obstacles, subtle and overt, in their pursuit of science and math education.

There are the stories of the lone girl in the AP physics class, ostracized by her male classmates. The girl on the FIRST Robotics team who is assigned marketing duties when there's nothing she'd like to do more than work on engineering. The counselor who recommends not taking an advanced math class because it would make the student's schedule too rigorous. The science teacher who never seems to call on the girl in the front row.

These problems do not end with high school. Unfortunately, gender discrimination is still a persistent and pernicious problem in higher education as well, as is made frightfully clear in a recent Yale study that showed both male and female science faculty exhibiting gender bias against female job candidates. At MIT, it has not been that long since our 1999 admission of discrimination against female science faculty. This action made international news and promised improved conditions for all women in STEM. Things have improved on campus; I am proud to have helped enroll a student body in which 45 percent of our undergraduates—and 44 percent of our STEM majors—are women. These women perform as well as the men over the course of their undergraduate careers, and they graduate in higher numbers.

While research continues to show societal obstacles for women in STEM, there is evidence of schools with strong, supportive communities for all students. A study released in August, written by Glenn Ellison, an MIT economist, and others does show a large gender gap among high-achieving math students. But it also finds examples of high schools where the gap is significantly narrowed. Those results are echoed in a new report from the Institute of Physics ("It's Different for Girls"), which found that women in single-sex schools in England pursued physics at much higher rates than those in coeducational schools. Unresolved is what makes the schools in each study so successful. Can we understand these factors and replicate them more widely? By emulating successful educational practices, and eliminating both overt gender discrimination and subtle gender bias, we can make substantial progress in closing the STEM gender gap.

Read other responses in the complete Chronicle of Higher Education article