Physics is for Girls! The face of STEM is changing.
Mark Atwater posted on August 19, 2013 |

When you look at the rosters for science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) classes, you’re more likely to find the names Matt or Mike than Mindy or Mary. Science and technology industries are dominated by men, but the gender gap is closing. Still, girls are less likely to pursue STEM topics in high school than boys. What's behind it?

A study by Catherine Riegle-Crumb and Chelsea Moore, sociologists at the University of Texas, looks into the gender divide in high school physics. The report, which appears in the journal Social Science Quarterly, looks into the “why,” and offers an intriguing explanation.

In an analysis of some 10,000 students at nearly 100 schools, Riegle-Crumb found that the gender gap was not a constant.

"What we find is that there are many schools where boys and girls take high school physics at the same rate," Riegle-Crumb said in an interview. "And that there are many other schools where more girls actually take physics than boys. And so when you look at the aggregate, you see a pattern where boys are taking physics more than girls, but there is a lot of variation around that."

There are always confounding variables that affect complex questions about human decision. Some factors that may contribute to girl’s decision to pursue science are her parents’ education and professions, the family’s ability to pay for tutoring and whether a parent can stay at home and help their child with homework. Also important is the school itself, whether it is high-performing and has well-developed support and promotion of the sciences.

Even when controlling for those variables, Riegle-Crumb found that there was a different explanation for whether girls choose a STEM path. "What we found is that in communities that had a higher percentage of women in the labor force who are working in science, technology, engineering and math, that in those schools, girls were as likely as boys to take physics, or even more likely."

This finding is evidence that the decision to take physics, or other science classes, is not an in-built preference for guys that girls don’t have. Rather, it is related to their impression of gender roles in their community. If they grow up in a community where there is more exposure to women who are employed in STEM fields, they will be more likely to pursue those fields as well.

By seeing other women involved in science and technology, young girls are more likely to consider it as a career for themselves. If there is not a significant presence of women in these positions, it may not even cross their minds as a possible or desirable path. This emphasizes the importance in promoting STEM careers to a diverse population.


The interview with Riegle-Crumb by Shankar Vedantam of NPR is available here .


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