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Reports Explore Why Women Are Underrepresented In STEM Fields

March 23, 2010

math teacherTwo new studies have found that while women have made great strides in math and engineering, they are negatively affected by stereotypes that reinforce the notion that boys perform better in those subjects.

A report by the American Association of University Women, called "Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics" concludes that girls become less confident of their math and science abilities beginning in middle school. But the report notes that when teachers and parents tell girls that experience and learning can increase one's intelligence in STEM subjects, girls perform better on math tests and are more likely to continue studying math in the future.

"We scanned the literature for research with immediate applicability," said Catherine Hill, the association's research director and lead author of the report, who was quoted in The New York Times. "We found a lot of small things can make a difference, like a course in spatial skills for women going into engineering, or teaching children that math ability is not fixed, but grows with effort."

The report found that girls are steadily improving in math and science. Among sixth and seventh graders who scored more than 700 on the math SAT, boys now outnumber girls 3 to 1, compared to 13 to 1 three decades ago.

While the study does refer to differences in male and female brains, Hill noted in the Times that biological factors are "clearly not the whole story. There's a real danger in assuming that innate differences are important in determining who will succeed, so we looked at the cultural factors, to see what evidence there is on the nurture side of nature or nurture."

Meanwhile, a national survey conducted by the Bayer Corporation indicated that significant numbers of female and minority chemists and chemical engineers said they were discouraged from embarking on a STEM career at some point. The survey, which polled over 1,200 female, African-American, Hispanic and American Indian chemists and chemical engineers, found that 77 percent felt that many women and minorities were not involved in STEM fields today because they were not adequately encouraged to do so.

The three main causes identified in the survey to explain the underrepresentation of women and minorities in STEM fields included a lack of adequate science and math education programs in low-income school districts, financial issues related to the cost of education, and stereotypes suggesting that girls and minorities lack the capability to excel in those fields.

"If we want to achieve true diversity in America's STEM workforce, we must first understand the root causes of underrepresentation and the ongoing challenges these groups face," noted Greg Babe, president and chief executive officer of the Bayer Corp., in a press release."We want to knock down those barriers. If we can do that, we'll be able to develop the attitudes, behaviors, opportunities and resources that lead to success."


Compiled by CityTownInfo.com Staff

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