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Are Female Students Leaving STEM?


On the heels of the highly debated Google Manifesto which highlighted one man’s views that “distribution of preferences and abilities of men and women differ in part due to biological causes and that these differences may explain why we don't see equal representation of women in tech and leadership," a new article by Nick Kroll has surfaced outlining the various reasons women are leaving STEM.


Kroll draws heavily from a paper by researchers from Georgetown University titled “Choice of Majors: Are Women Really Different from Men?” which largely discussed the reasons why so many women who enter male-dominated STEM fields switch to a different course before graduation. A lot of what we believe to be reasons why women are leaving STEM has proven, with further research, to be untrue.


“Only when women are in a male-dominated STEM field are they more responsive than men to the negative feedback of low grades,” the researchers wrote. This echoes the findings of an earlier article which quotes Beth A. Michaels, “Frankly, both groups are not happy. They have the same values…They have the same negative feedback. They have some different priorities, but here's the big-ticket item: The women react differently to the same environment."


In brief, while men and women share similar dissatisfaction with STEM fields, women are far more likely than men to leave the major before graduation. Though it is easy to explain the wage gap by saying that men and women “choose” different majors and men typically pick more lucrative paths, is it critical to understand the why behind these decisions.


Unfortunately, and surprisingly, adding more female faculty does not appear to increase the number of female graduates.


“Women persist,” Kugler, one of the Georgetown paper’s researchers, said. “They have to get triple signals, triple cues, that they don’t belong, that they don’t belong to actually be turned away more than men.”


These signals come in the form of poor grades, undue pressure, and perhaps unconscious messages that they don’t belong. Somewhat paradoxically, it has been found that the more attention drawn to recruiting more women into STEM fields has the opposite effect of reinforcing the idea that men are better-suited for these fields.

“Society keeps telling us that STEM fields are masculine fields, that we need to increase the participation of women in STEM fields, but that kind of sends a signal that it’s not a field for women, and it kind of works against keeping women in these fields,” Kugler said. And if talking directly about the lack of women in a certain field proves ineffective, it presents a unique set of challenges. Silence about the inequity of men and women in STEM does not seem to be a viable or desirable option either.


Making matters even more complicated, it has been shown that, “as more women enter a major, its earnings potentials tend to decline.” Many women are enticed to enter STEM by seeing the earning potentials advertised only to find that as more women enter that field the salary declines. This is part of the reason why wage transparency from companies is so crucial.


Clearly the male/ female divide in STEM fields is not a cut and dry issue. Many factors are involved, and many layers will need to be peeled back to get to the core of the issue. What does the future of the STEM field look like? What strategies may be helpful in increasing female STEM graduates?

Valued Contributor

First, let me start by thanking you for bringing this post back.  I was quite saddened when it disappeared last time.


When I was stationed in Wyoming, I befriended a man who was at the time working as a plumber.  I learned that he had a Bachelor's degree from BYU, so I was surprised that he was in the trades.  It turns out he had started his college career as a Business major, but when he saw what kind of people were Business majors, he asked himself, "Do I want to spend the rest of my life around these sorts of people?"  His answer to himself was "No" and so he switched majors to Art.  Specifically, his degree is in Ceramics.  It was not very marketable, so he ended up in the trades.


When I entered IT in the civilian sector, I did notice the miniscule percentage of women in the field.  I began to wonder if women who were good at Math and Science in High School enter STEM fields in college, but then notice that all of the other students are socially clueless, geeky nerdy men, and choose to switch majors.  The few women I have encountered in my post-military IT career seem to gravitate toward administrative, supervisory, and managerial positions, thus separating themselves from the socially clueless, geeky nerdy men who perform the actual tasks.


Please do bear in mind that this is all personal observation, and is thus anecdotal evidence.  It is not based on valid statistics, but my observations, if they are consistent around the nation, might bear futher investigation.


I don't see them LEAVING, but we certainly still have problems attracting them.  We've offered scholarships, partnered with other colleges and had innovative grants to bring more interest to the field. All of this helped a little, but not enough to bridge the gap!

Frequent Commenter

Cassie you find the most intereting things! I am a graduate of Clemson University with a BS in Computer Science (1986). Unknown to me at the time,  this was a unique field for women. I have never encountered  negative attitudes towards women in my field. I can never identify with these articles!


My Dad always told me I could be what I wanted to. I took the first Computer Science course taught at my high school when I was a senior. I enroll in Clemson in Computer Science in 1982, and I progressed through my major on time. I never had anyone tell me I could not be a programmer. I never encountered it when I went into work for Royal Insurance after I graduated.  I worked for six years as a programmer and then a programmer/analyst. I chose to stay home with my children until my son was in the fourth grade and then I went back part time as an instructor at Gaston College where I now work full time.


I have been asked by co-workers about this topic and how to keep women in STEM. But I don't know how because I don't see this at all. I have almost equal male and female students in my Intro to Programming class.


Yes I make less than most of my co-workers, but I started in education after they did. If I had stayed in the programmer field, I could be making the big-bucks because I programmed in COBOL. I am happy with my life choices. Women might not choose STEM fields as much as men because they have different personalities. I really don't know.


This topic seems to draw a lot of attention, but again, I can't relate to it.

Valued Contributor

@Kelly_Hinson, you are highly blessed!  If I may be so bold, in what part of the nation do you reside and work?  I'm in San Antonio, TX.  Since leaving the Air Force, I have not seen anything even remotely approaching a decent number of women in IT.  I am therefore curious about your regional culture that has enabled such a wonderful balance.

Frequent Commenter

I live outside of Charlotte NC. But I have to say that I don't go around looking for how many women are in IT. I guess that does not interest me.  When I worked at Royal Insurance (now closed), I would say we had almost equal numbers of men and women in IT.  More men were in management at that time, but I didn't bother with that. I never felt like I would be kept from being a manager because I was a woman.


I look at the IT department on our campus and see women. In my Information Technology Department, we have 3 women to 5 men. But I don't see that as women not going into a STEM field.

Valued Contributor

Thank you for the details.  I don't run around counting women either, but when the disparity is so great as I see here, women stand out simply by not being men.  When I was active duty, the pro geeks were in about the same ratios as the overall enlisted force, so it didn't seem outstanding in any way.  Now, it is a huge surpise. 


While the program I teach was just started in July, and I don't have many students yet, not one of them is a woman.  We did have one woman enroll, but she had to drop due to a medical issue.  Every single prospect who has come through since her has been a man, regardless of age or ethnicity.  My ethnic balance is about the same as the overall population of San Antonio, but the gender balance is most definitely not!  This matches my experiences in IT before I became an instructor as well.


I knew we shared a bond - the military!  I'm retired Air Force and that's where my IT background comes from - no color, no gender, no lower pay...  It was all equal there, depending on your rank!  Because I had such a wonderful military experience as a dependent and an officer, I often tell my students they ought to consider it as a career.  If nothing else, it's a great place to train and launch in any profession (nurses can outrank doctors in the military...Smiley Happy.

Valued Contributor

@Sandy_Keeter, I retired after 25 years as a 9S100, Scientific Applications Specialist, the career field nicknamed The Enlisted Scientists by the Air Force ISR Agency.  We did all of our own IT because we were often stationed at small monitoring and research detachments around the world where the support base was too far away.


Enlistment is a great way for someone to gain experience and earn a degree, whether through Tuition Assistance or later through the G.I. Bill.  I often recommend it to those who are not already dedicated to a specific path.


I have always been in male dominating fields, starting in Entomology. There were not many males! Then I progressed to Computer Science with a BS and MS. There weren't many females there either. 


My industry experience of eighteen years was as a programmer/analyst and consultant. I found there were more female analysts then males typically. Males dominated in the programming arena. 

Valued Contributor

I don't know if this is truly germane to our discussion, but I just discovered this fascinating paper while I was digging up data for a training briefing I'm giving in the morning to our Admission staff:
Personality Traits and Career Satisfaction of Information Technology Professionals



Great article I'll share with my Dean!


Frequent Commenter

This is a great article. Thanks for sharing. I think maybe what I've been trying to say is - are we more concerned that women are not in STEM over just the fact that different personality types foster the careers we choose? I'm more interested in getting students in vocations where their strengths can shine. I am also interested in getting all people to try programming. I know a lot of people can't do programming, but there are some out there who can and don't know it yet! Those are the ones I'd love to have in my classes. And I don't care if they are male or female.

Valued Contributor

@Kelly_Hinson, I completely agree with your point.  When I first started teaching High School, I learned that primary and secondary education is dominated by women.  Post-secondary used to be dominated by men, but is becoming more equal as time goes on and as there are initiatives that push for more women in higher education.


What I don't see is a push for gender equality in primary and secondary.  Nobody is trying to get more men into teaching those grade levels.  Nursing has historically been dominated by women, and medical doctors were more likely to be men.  Nobody is pushing to get more men into nursing, but there have been several pushes to get more women to earn the M.D.  


Personally, I want people to follow their calling and flourish according to the gifts they have.  I'm not particularly interested in playing gender politics, or ethnic politics, or whatever.

Valued Contributor

@Sandy_Keeter, I hope it serves you well!

Frequent Commenter

There are so many factors as to why there are not more women in STEM. One might also ask why are there not more men in other majors, such as fashion design and early childhood education, for instance? 


Unfortunately, you can make the faculty as female-friendly as you want (we have several women on faculty in Computer Science), but the fact remains, not that women are less good at it, but that women who are good at it are regularly overlooked by peers and in the workforce, they face demeaning behavior on the part of the men. I am sure the same happens with women in other predominantly male roles. I know some will not like these observations, but it is what it is. 


On the other hand, can one blame the men in the workforce? Because of our need for equality in all areas, women are now being actively recruited and are able get get STEM job more easily than their male counterparts - sort of a reverse discrimination.


What is the answer? I don't know. This I do know, it does not have to do with the knowledge being more difficult for women. Smiley Happy


FABULOUS points @janetfleming



Valued Contributor

Thank you, @eshepard!  This is great information.  I'm not too concerned about the date, as it is still valuable for trend analysis.  Later data can be added.


I especially like the one that shows a variety of fields and comparisons.