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Understanding persistent gender gaps in STEM

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Science  19 Jun 2020:
Vol. 368, Issue 6497, pp. 1317-1319
DOI: 10.1126/science.aba7377

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Summary

Gender gaps in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) college majors receive considerable attention, and it is increasingly recognized that not all STEM majors are equal in terms of gender disparities (14). For example, the male-to-female ratio among U.S. college majors in biology, chemistry, mathematics, and many other STEM fields is now about 1-to-1 (2, 5), whereas in physics, engineering, and computer science (PECS), the ratio appears to have plateaued at about 4-to-1 (2, 4, 5). Here, we make two important contributions, showing (i) how gender relates to pursuit of a PECS degree throughout the achievement distribution and (ii) that student characteristics that predict PECS pursuit in the literature are not equally predictive of the gender gap throughout the achievement distribution. We find that a surprisingly large number of low-achieving men are majoring in PECS, relative to women, and this cannot be explained by an extensive set of student-level factors proposed in the prior literature (610). We can, however, explain the gender gap among high-achieving students. These patterns suggest that interventions to close the gender gap may work to attract high-achieving women; yet, something beyond these student factors may be attracting low-achieving men and repelling average- and low-achieving women, and without addressing those factors, it is unlikely that the PECS gender gap will fully close.

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