The Math Problem Diverting Women Out Of STEM Careers

Low mathematical confidence + a bleak future of discrimination = women exiting the field

Illustration: Tara Jacoby
Aug 02, 2016 at 6:00 AM ET

The pipeline that funnels women into careers in math and science is leaky all the way along along, but if one particular leak could be plugged, it might make a dramatic difference. Researchers have identified one change that would increase the number of women in so-called STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math) by 75 percent.

A new study finds that women are 1.5 times more likely to leave their STEM studies after their first college course in calculus, a crucial stepping stone for those pursuing a career in the field. Despite having above-average mathematical abilities and preparedness, women are more likely to both start and end the course with lower mathematical confidence than men. They report that they don’t understand the course material, meaning they leave that educational track and are diverted from STEM fields.

Women and men begin their formal educations with a relatively equal interest in science, but the divide tends to widen with time. The most notable shift can be observed in freshman attending a four-year college or university.

And before some self-described ‘men’s rights activist’ comes up with the brilliant analysis that these women lack confidence because they lack the skills (the study didn’t examine students’ grades or abilities) past research has found that women actually tend to outperform men in Calculus I, so those arguments simply don’t add up.

One factor in why calculus affects women’s decisions to pursue a new field of study in college so profoundly is the fact their mathematical confidence is shaken early on.

“If female students are entering college excited to be challenged, supported, and surrounded by like-minded STEM people and they have a negative initial experience with a STEM course, it makes sense that this could be the final experience to encourage them to pursue a different (and non-STEM) field,” Jessica Ellis, a co-author of the report and professor of mathematics at Colorado State University, told Vocativ in an e-mail.

Calculus is notoriously difficult, known for separating the wheat from the chaff at the collegiate level, which is something Stacy S. Klein-Gardner, director of the Center for STEM Education for Girls may be part of the problem.

“Some professors aren’t changing how they teach or what they teach,” she said, noting that they often employ “an attitude where you’re doing great if you got a 60 on a test.” She notes that this type of negative reinforcement may affect women differently.

More Women Avoid Science Fields That Are Full Of Self-Appointed Geniuses

Men also choose to end their STEM studies at this juncture, but for different reasons. While men and women are nearly as likely to say they’ve dropped out due to having too many other courses, not doing well enough in Calculus I, or switching majors, women are more than twice as likely to say that they “do not believe [they] understand the ideas of Calculus I well enough to take Calculus II.” It’s the same basic rationale that means women don’t apply for jobs unless they’re 100 percent qualified, while men apply at 60 percent qualified.

This gender gap in confidence starts early—according to a recent study from Google and Gallup, more female students in high school or younger believe that boys will outperform them in computer science, and are less confident in their own abilities to succeed. The study also found that TV representation of girls and parents’ sentiments reinforce the notion—age-old cultural stereotypes, basically. Sure, there’s been a massive flood of STEM-toys for girls recently, including Mattel’s new Game Developer Barbie, but there are still a lot of cultural stereotypes to unravel here. (Remember the infamous “Math class is tough”-whining Teen Talk Barbie released in 1992?)

“Within any one woman’s life, [the confidence gap] likely stems back to her early childhood,” said Klein-Gardner. “Girls are equally as good or better at mathematics than boys, but word hasn’t gotten out yet to the average girl that it’s the case.”

The harsh reality for those who survive the long swim upstream to a career in STEM is that they’ll face racial and gender gaps there, which have persisted for a long time, with men statistically twice as likely to be hired for a mathematical task than women are. Widespread sexism in Silicon Valley has been found present in all aspects of the work culture, from the interview process to networking opportunities to sexual harassment.

“Our study indicates that the women who persist through the calculus sequence have higher mathematical confidence than those who don’t,” said Ellis. “If we imagine this trend continuing through up to women in academic STEM positions or leadership positions in tech companies, these are the women who may have the strongest mathematical confidence (and abilities). Yet, almost daily now it seems like there is another study published that highlights the ways in which these highly confident and capable women in STEM experience their careers with obstacles that men do not face.”