By Tracey Dowdy
In several studies, when children were asked to draw a mathematician or scientist, boys almost without exception drew men, often in a lab coat, and even girls were twice as likely to draw men as they were to draw women.
STEM careers have traditionally been male-dominated fields. Children repeatedly learn about the male mathematicians and scientists who have shaped our world from children’s books and classroom instruction. It starts at an early age, which may be one reason girls enter STEM fields at dramatically lower rates than their male peers.
Statistically, girls perform as well as boys in STEM-related courses until high school.
On a national level, girls’ math test scores have been consistently equal to or within two points of boys in fourth and eighth grades. Furthermore, middle school girls pass algebra at higher rates than boys, and when it comes to science, girls perform on par with boys and enroll in advanced science and math courses at equal rates as they move into high school.
That’s when things take a turn. As students progress through high school and on to higher education, the gap widens significantly and is compounded by race and class issues.
Part of the issue lies in stereotyping, and that starts in elementary school. A 2015 study uncovered teachers’ unconscious biases discourage girls from Math and Science. Those early educational experiences have a quantifiable effect on the courses students chose later on, which of course, eventually impacts the jobs they get and the wages they earn.
Stepping back from gender bias in the classroom makes a significant impact on the teaching methods’ efficacy. Cicely Woodard, a middle school math teacher and Tennesee’s 2018 Teacher of the Year, says, “For me, it starts with a belief, these expectations I have for all of my students, that all kids can learn—every teacher doesn’t have that belief. When the kids walk in the door I immediately believe they will get this content.”
Conscious and unconscious bias around who is “good” at math and science has profound implications for low-income students and black and Latino females. Both demographics are significantly less likely to take advanced STEM courses and pursue STEM professions later in life. Students’ challenges with limited in-person instruction during the COVID-19 pandemic have only widened the academic gap.
One solution that seems to be addressing some of these biases and gaps in instruction is project-based open-ended assessments. This allows students, mainly girls, to demonstrate their proficiency through word problems or writing, where they often feel more confident.
Dr. Jill Marshall, associate co-director of UTeach at the University of Texas at Austin, a program trying to confront the pipeline problem of STEM teachers from diverse backgrounds, says shifting the instructional and assessment models using these methods levels the playing field. She cites a 2008 study from the National Academy of Engineering that asked people if they wanted to be engineers. It will come as no surprise that girls were twice as likely as boys to say no. However, when asked if they would like to design a safe water system, save the rainforest, or use DNA to solve crimes, the girls answered yes. “Project-based instruction just generally draws in more people because it addresses problems that people see as relevant.”
Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Washington DC. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances, edits, and researches on subjects ranging from family and education to history and trends in technology. Follow Tracey on Twitter.