Recent Research: The Role of Gender in Higher Ed STEM Retention, Ideas to Address Gap

July 28, 2016

Sixty percent of students drop out or transfer from science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields, and more than 50 percent of students pursuing STEM in community colleges never graduate, according to new research from researchers at the University of Missouri (UM) and other partner institutions. The five-year National Science Foundation-backed (NSF) study is collecting data from 12 engineering colleges in the U.S. and recently reached the conclusion of its second year. The researchers report that the preliminary data also indicates that there may be a statistically significant difference in STEM retention at institutions of higher education between male and female students.

These new preliminary findings support the findings of similar 2016 studies on gender differences in STEM retention. In Characteristics of US Students That Pursued a STEM Major and Factors That Predicted Their Persistence in Degree Completion, Wichita State researcher Wei-Cheng J. Mau reported results of a five-year study that found significant gender differences in entering, completing, and persistence in the STEM pipeline. The author found that only 16.2 percent of women achieved a STEM degree (22.6 percent for males). The study, which included 71,405 total students, also found that women were less likely to enter STEM fields than their male counterparts.

In STEM Field Persistence: The Impact of Engagement on Postsecondary STEM Persistence for Underrepresented Minority Students, Daniel Flynn from Georgia State University also found that the retention of women in engineering majors is especially difficult for females. Flynn concludes that the field of engineering suffers from both a dearth of female STEM majors and low retention rates.

While those studies focused specifically on identifying the gap between men and women in STEM retention, other recent studies have focused on identifying factors/roadblocks that drive down STEM persistence. These studies have found that male classmates and instructors may create significant roadblocks to women in STEM.

In Males Under-Estimate Academic Performance of Their Female Peers in Undergraduate Biology Classrooms, the Daniel Grunspan et al. contend that one of the contributing factors behind women leaving STEM majors “is the social environment women experience in the classroom.” The researchers found that males are more likely than females to be named by peers as being knowledgeable about the course content regardless of class performance and outspokenness. “The bias in nominations is specifically due to males over-nominating their male peers relative to their performance.” The authors conclude that favoring of males by peers could influence a female student’s self-confidence, thus persistence in this STEM discipline.

Men overestimated the course performance of their male peers (at an average of one-half letter grade), according to Samantha Elliot, St. Mary’s College of Maryland, in an article published in the Journal of Microbiology & Biology Education. Elliott also highlights that peer influence may reduce the likelihood of female STEM students to contribute to introductory biology classroom discussions. These issues are driven by the fact that current faculty may be resistant to gender bias data, thus exacerbating the issues, according to Elliott.

“It is the instructor’s responsibility to assess and understand how all students learn in an effort to reach as many students as possible,” according to a study in the The Journal of College Science Teaching. The study’s author, Marlene Murray, contends that while the influence of male peers does impact female STEM students’ self-perception, the college instructor plays an important role in helping students build each student’s self-perception. By improving self-perception of female students, Murray contends higher retention rates will be achieved.

Beyond the traditional four-year STEM higher education, women in vocational training also face similar roadblocks. In Why is the pipeline leaking? Experiences of young women in STEM vocational education and training and their adjustment strategies, the Elena Makarova et al. found “strong support for the persistence of gender stereotypic beliefs about young women and their professional competencies in apprenticeship programs in male-dominated career fields.” They conclude that traditional stereotypes and other sexist attitudes have an impact on female’s self-perception of their own abilities andas a result are less likely to enter the field in which they received training.

“Qualitative studies indicate their decision to persist in STEM is influenced by the perception of self-efficacy,” according to The Retention of Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics: A Framework for Persistence. This meta-analysis of the academic literature also found other factors that hinder female STEM retention including:

  • Lack of self-confidence as compared to their male peers; and,
  • Strong cultural influences.

Another study – Are Female STEM Majors Academic Risk Takers – found that female STEM majors are academically less risk adverse than female non-STEM majors. Using data from three U.S. universities, the researchers conclude that the general tendency for women to be more risk adverse may also lead to the gender gap in STEM retention.

While these studies indicate that there may be a leaky pipeline in STEM at institutions of higher education, new research indicates that those holes may be plugged years before they happen. In Building the STEM pipeline: Findings of a 9-year longitudinal research project, Huy Le from the University of Texas at San Antonio and Steven Robbins from Educational Testing Services contend that the likelihood of STEM retention in college can be predicted many years before they step in a classroom. Researchers can predict during adolescence if the student will be able to obtain a college degree in STEM, according to the nine-year study They conclude that personality-difference factors are “reciprocally related and thus mutually develop over time” creating the stability in their model that allowed them to identify adolescence with high STEM retention potential.

The findings of Le and Robbins also support other recent studies that have found adolescence plays an important role in STEM retention for females. These studies indicate that factors such as role modeling and self-perception of STEM-related ability can be strengthened, thus reducing the impact of male peers on female students.

“Young white women are more likely to major in STEM fields and to graduate with STEM degrees when they come from high schools with higher proportions of female math and science teachers, irrespective of the race of the teacher,” according to Demographic Characteristics of High School Math and Science Teachers and Girls’ Success in STEM. The researchers conclude that role modeling drives this positive impact. In Perceived Mathematical Ability under Challenge: A Longitudinal Perspective on Sex Segregation among STEM Degree Fields, researchers conclude that a student’s perception of their mathematics ability varies by gender starting early in life. However, the authors found that access to advanced scientific coursework in high school and interventions aimed at enhancing young women's perceptions of their ability have positive impacts on the retention of women in STEM.

While recent academic literature paints a bleak picture related to the retention of women in STEM majors due to significant roadblocks presented by male classmates, stereotypes, and potentially, instructors, other studies confirm that interventions and STEM role models can play a vital role in addressing the leaky STEM pipeline. These studies conclude that increased self-perception of STEM ability, up to nine years before a female enters college, can greatly increase her likelihood of STEM retention due to a strong self-perception of her ability.

stem, recent research, higher ed