Revisiting the Underrepresentation of Women in Science

By Liz Fayer, Garreth Zalud, Mark Baron, and Cynthia M. Anderson

The journal Nature has recently reexamined the gap between men and women in the sciences, documenting how men continue to dominate the field. For women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields, this is not news. Although women have made advancements, they continue to make less money, obtain fewer promotions, and receive fewer grants than their male counterparts.

The underrepresentation of women in STEM fields can be traced back through the educational pipeline. An article in BIOTechNow, “Generation STEM: What Girls Say about Science, Technology, Engineering and Math,” found that girls are interested in STEM and score as well as boys on tests in these fields in high school but are less likely than boys to list career goals in STEM fields. Girls clearly need more education about STEM careers and about how they can make a difference in the world by pursuing them. A study at Virginia Tech examined how female science, technology, engineering, and mathematics majors from minority groups leave at such rates that the university is struggling to keep them in its programs. In the College of Engineering, for example, women received only 180 degrees in 2010, while men received 1,002 degrees. These problems are not limited to the United States: according to statistics gathered by the International Telecommunication Union ITU, women make up less than one-third of the workforce in computer science, engineering, and physics fields in the world’s most important emerging economies. Because many of the jobs in these fields, both in the United States and abroad, carry high salaries, the gap between men and women in the sciences exacerbates the well-established salary gap.

Studies attribute the underrepresentation of women in STEM fields to a variety of factors. A Cornell University study suggested that women are opting out of these fields because of family demands; other studies have focused on the need to expose more young women to careers in the sciences. William Lewis, vice president for diversity at Virginia Tech, believes that the issues of women and STEM majors can be linked to precollege education.

Research Project

Liz Fayer, one of the authors of this article, used surveys of 192 biology students in a rural Midwestern university to study students’ views on how they could best learn biology content, the nature of science, and inquiry strategies. Students answered questions about how much teacher support they would need to best learn science in terms of six lab components: (1) problem/question, (2) theory/background, (3) procedure/design, (4) analysis of results, (5) results/communication, and (6) conclusions.

Fayer used statistical analysis to compare the perceptions of female students with those of male students. Results of the t tests used as a means to determine the significant differences between men and women revealed that in several of the content areas, the nature of science area and the inquiry strategies area, the female students indicated that they needed significantly more structure to be successful than did their male counterparts (see table 1). In other words, the women indicated that they would more successfully learn science in some areas when the theory/background and the analysis of results were provided by the professor, while the men did not. The perception of the female students that they needed a more structured teaching format suggests that they are less comfortable with independent inquiry, which is the heart of what engages us in scientific pursuits.

Table 1. Differences in perceptions of students

Lab Experience Means      
Components Female Male t value df p
Content: Respiration/Photosynthesis/Diffusion and Osmosis
Theory/Background 1.67 2.04 2.43 188 .016*
Content: Genetics/Evolution
Theory/Background 1.71 2.05 2.14 188 .034*
Content: Nature of Science
Analysis of Results 3.16 3.55 2.00 188 .047*
Content: Inquiry Strategies
Theory/Background 2.25 2.74 2.32 130 .022*

* Denotes significant difference at .05 level.
The higher the mean value the less structure is perceived to be required.

So, why do women students in the same course feel that they need more information provided to them by the professor, and why is it important for professors to think about the initial question of why women are more likely to shy away from STEM fields? Is there a lack of confidence or a perceived lack of confidence? Fayer’s study of responses to questions about previous exposure to inquiry teaching methods at the K–12 level suggests one explanation. Roughly three-quarters of the female students reported having few inquiry experiences in K–12 education. Students who indicated lower levels of inquiry believed that they needed more instructor input and were less able to work independently than other students in several of the content area lab components.

Could it be that female students perceive a difference in their K–12 education when compared to their male counterparts or that female students are treated differently in K–12 science classrooms? Are women supported more than males in ways that reduce their motivation to inquire into scientific mysteries?

Suggestions for Professors

If female students believe they need more support, faculty members need to provide it without blinking. Giving any indication that we are frustrated with their lack of confidence may lead many of these students to walk away, leaving only the most motivated women or those who had a strong K–12 science education. If we want more women to join and persist in the STEM fields, we need to consider our ability to create confidence by providing support, regardless of how much help is needed or who needs it.

More research into the causes of attrition among females in STEM is also needed. To simply accept the current shortage of women in STEM fields is to allow the discrepancies between women and men, in earning potential and in other areas, to persist. We must encourage all students to gain independence.

College and university science classrooms can be used for “action research” or systematic inquiry to improve teaching and learning. Action research in the past has focused on teacher education and professional development, research on science learning, and curriculum and instruction. All of these targeted areas of action research can be used to determine whether the courses taught reflect gender bias, whether current teaching techniques meet the needs of all students, and whether those techniques are building confidence in student science ability. Using action research to solve problems and reflect on teaching practices empowers faculty members to improve student learning and self-efficacy. This type of research can look closely at how students perceive learning, gender, self-efficacy, and persistence and at how we as teachers are supporting those who are underrepresented in our fields.

Suggestions for Departments

Departments can encourage this type of research and help faculty members share their findings during departmental meetings. Answering common questions about helping female students learn and supporting persistence of women in STEM fields can be an expectation for research and discussion. Groups of faculty could work together to analyze data and then discuss how to use those data to support female students. Group reflection can make the faculty aware of effective teaching strategies. For example, science education expert Maria Ferreira investigated gender issues related to graduate student attrition using data from biology and chemistry departments as well as student surveys and interviews. She concluded that a lack of role models, overemphasis on competition rather than collaboration, and advisers and faculty who favor men over women all contributed to the gender gap in the sciences. A group from the University of California, Berkeley, found that women left the engineering and computer science departments there at much higher rates than men in part because women felt isolated and not integrated into the departments. When the data from men and women were analyzed more closely, “not having enough confidence” was ranked highly by women as a factor in leaving their department.

Our students should enter college believing that they are prepared to succeed in and confident and knowledgeable about STEM fields. They should know about the opportunities available to them in these fields. Finally, they should be supported in college as they pursue coursework in the sciences.


Liz Fayer is coordinator of Project SECOND and an instructor at Black Hills State University. Her e-mail address is [email protected]. Garreth Zalud is professor and chair in the division of curriculum and instruction at the University of South Dakota. Mark Baron is professor and chair in the division of educational administration at the University of South Dakota. Cynthia M. Anderson is assistant professor in the School of Natural Sciences at Black Hills State University.