A new report from the American Association of University Women (AAUW), “Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics,” examines the social and environmental causes underlying the under-representation of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. In the last several decades, girls have been catching up to boys in terms of elementary, middle, and high school science and engineering courses, and nearly the same number of girls as boys graduate from high school prepared to study science or engineering in college. Yet, research findings indicate that popular beliefs about intelligence, stereotypes, college environments, and implicit bias still contribute to the gender imbalance in science and engineering.

The AAUW report considers the factors limiting participation and provides recommendations for parents, teachers, and faculty. Among the recommendations for reducing the gender gap: societal and educational changes must begin early in life and extend throughout a women’s professional life. First, girls must be taught that they can excel in STEM careers. Parents and teachers can foster the idea that intellectual skills are acquired and strengthened with practice, and should discuss negative stereotypes of women and expose girls to positive female role models in science and engineering careers. At the collegiate level, departments should actively recruit female STEM majors, emphasize real-life applications in STEM courses, and create faculty-student support groups. Colleges and universities can increase the number of female faculty in STEM fields by assessing departmental cultures, implementing mentoring programs for junior faculty, and providing child care and allowing parental leave.

The recommendations in the AAUW report differ from those of a 2006 National Academy of Sciences report, “Beyond Bias and Barriers: Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering.” That report largely focused on the role of university and departmental administrators in changing their institution’s hiring, tenure, and promotion policies in order to actively eliminate gender bias.

The AAUW report is available at http://www.aauw.org/research/whysofew.cfm. A Washington Watch article from BioScience that describes the 2006 NAS report is available at http://www.aibs.org/washington-watch/washingtonwatch2006_11.html.

 


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