Column: Why there are fewer women in math related fields

There are a lot of stereotypes of engineers, some negative, few positive, but the image most people see when they think of engineers is overwhelmingly of a male. It’s not really far from the truth. Although more than half of the students in college are women, majors in the science, technology, engineering and math fields attract far fewer female students than males. According to a study by the Georgia Institute of Technology and Harvard University, roughly 20 percent of engineering and math students are women, and though the number of females in math fields is greater than ever, it is still disproportionately low.

What’s causing this? For one, women seem to avoid these majors for reasons different than men. Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison found women in engineering seemed to have a certain grade point average threshold, and after their GPA fell below it, they left the major. This GPA threshold was much higher than their male counterparts. Women enter these fields, aware of the gender stereotypes males are better at math and science, and then when their GPA drops, some assume they simply aren’t cut out for the field and leave. With men in these majors, the pressure seems to be reversed — being surrounded by men reinforces the belief of engineering and the hard sciences as one of the respectable degrees for their gender. Sometimes men end up staying in these majors far too long, not even considering other options after being put on academic probation.

In reality, the gender stereotypes employed when discussing underrepresentation of women in engineering and hard science fields (e.g., “women don't think spatially” or “men think with numbers, women think with words”) are simply incorrect. The University of Wisconsin-Madison study refuted any stereotypes men are naturally better at math than women. Both have the same aptitude. A University of Toronto study indicated spatial cognition capabilities are similar in men and women.

It’s pretty much negative stereotyping acting against women. The joint Harvard and University of Wisconsin – Madison study also reports that even when universities increase female-oriented programming and social activities, the enrollment and retention rates don’t increase. Lack of awareness and camaraderie between female science majors doesn’t seem to be helping the problem either. Something else has to happen to close the gender gap.

It has to take place at the lower levels of the education system, especially since a University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee study showed children as young as nine years old are being affected by the stereotypes. Some groups on campus are involved in outreach to elementary schools in an effort to combat this. They focus on introducing the students to the possibilities in pursuing a future in engineering, as well as the various disciplines, through easy and entertaining experiments.

Showing girls applications and possibilities to math outside of an academic setting are vital, but simply sparking interest is only part of the solution, and doesn’t exactly help to increase enrollment and retention rates in colleges right now. Also, talking to professors or professionals related to your field may be beneficial in dealing with a lack of confidence and self-doubt, since mentors may be able to provide guidance through their experience and put things into a different perspective. Talking to mentors could prove to be helpful for those struggling regardless of gender or major.

In the end, the best thing for female college students questioning their suitability for math fields is to keep in mind there is no real biologically based factor hindering them that needs to be overcome.

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