When it comes to gender, it appears that the last generation has made huge strides in creating a more balanced workplace. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, from 1974 to 2014, the number of women in the workforce increased from 36 million to over 74 million.

But numbers aren’t the whole story, as more women in the workforce doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a more equitable one. After all, there are still significant gender gaps, the biggest of which lies in the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) fields. Given that STEM education is critical in an increasingly digital world, it’s important to look at the facts and devise solutions for this disparity.

STEM’s Gender Gap

The Program for International Student Achievement (PISA) is a test administered every three years by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development to 15 year olds, measuring their aptitude in reading, math, and science. As of 2015, the PISA evaluates students from more than 70 countries.

A New York Times analysis of the 2012 PISA results found that female students in most Western nations, including the United States and Germany, tested lower than their male counterparts. Similar gaps were not seen in Asia and Northern Europe, where scores were more equitable and girls frequently outscored boys.

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2015 PISA scores on mathematics. Source.

Unfortunately, the latest scores from the 2015 PISA scores show that the gender gap has persisted: on average, girls scored nine points lower than boys in math and seven points lower in science.

This leads to a weakened self perceptions, as detailed on page 26 of the OECD’s analysis of American PISA results: when presented with a list of scientific competencies, such as interpreting scientific data in food labels or describing the role of antibiotics in treating disease, boys were much more likely than girls to report that they could “do this easily.”

Further, because boys test higher in both math and science, it appears they have greater expectations for a career in STEM. After analyzing the results of job questionnaires given to students, OECD researchers found that American boys were more likely than girls to expect to become science or engineering professionals (20% of boys vs. 6% of girls), as well as information and communications technology (ICT) professionals (4% of boys vs. 0.5% of girls). Note that this gap is also observed in many other OECD countries (Tables I.3.11a-c).


Why the STEM gap is cultural, not biological

As mentioned above, this disparity is not present in all nations, suggesting that cultural values may be a contributing cause. The Times study found that girls in Asia, the Middle East, and the Baltic states consistently scored higher than their male counterparts on the PISA science exam.

Researchers speculate that girls in these nations are not encouraged to pursue what we might call “traditionally female career paths” like healthcare and education the way they are in the United States. One OECD study, drawing from earlier tests and assessments, concluded that low expectations and a lack of self-confidence created a self-fulfilling, vicious cycle of depressed female achievement in math and science.

It’s clear that the messages students are given throughout their childhoods have a proven effect on performance. For example, in one study sponsored by the NSF, researchers found that eighth-grade girls liked math less in more affluent (and supposedly more equal) societies, which often possessed a toxic combination of existing gender stereotypes and a lack of female role models.

More importantly, because few students know exactly what they want to achieve later in life, many allowed cultural and gender norms to guide their career–norms which do not generally feature women excelling in the stereotypically lonely, isolated workplaces associated with the STEM fields.

Case study in gender equality: Finland

One interesting exception to the gender gap is found in Finland, one of the few Western countries where the STEM achievement disparity seemingly does not exist on the PISA.

In fact, Finnish girls were ranked second best in the world in science, according to the OECD’s Global Education Survey, with researchers even finding that Finnish girls were more likely to outperform boys, something that is unseen elsewhere.

One major reason for this is a deliberate focus on equality in their education system from the top down. In a 2014 interview with The Atlantic, Finnish Education and Science Minister Krista Kiuru described their philosophy: “We don’t know what our kids will turn out like—we can’t know if one first-grader will become a famous composer, or another a famous scientist. Regardless of a person’s gender, background, or social welfare status, everyone should have an equal chance to make the most of their skills.”

How can America tackle this problem?

As we can see from Finland, the Baltic states, and several Asian countries, a pronounced gender gap in STEM can be corrected only if we make a conscious effort to build a more equal, dynamic playing field.

Change the Conversation

In an age of seemingly endless content, it’s easy to forget that popular media has a huge impact on young people’s perceptions of the world—especially where it concerns potential careers. Studies have shown that both the quantity and quality of representation is important: it’s not simply enough to have plenty of female actresses in a movie, at least not if they have superficial or overly simplistic roles. Instead, it’s also critical to portray such women in a positive light, casting them as successful STEM professionals, such as scientists and engineers.

Nonetheless, what constitutes a successful, “female” career is already changing. If anything, the recent box-office success of the film Hidden Figures, the untold story of three female, African-American mathematicians who proved pivotal in the space race, is a sign that our national conversation around gender and STEM is shifting.

Yet it is not only Hollywood characters that can change attitudes, but also real-life, female role models. One study showed that girls scored higher on math tests that were administered by a competent female instructor; essentially, by perceiving the female instructor as capable, girl students also raised their self-appraised math abilities accordingly.

This conclusion hints at a larger problem in American society. As researchers at the Center for Research on Girls have found, the lack of female role models in the STEM fields is a vicious cycle: because female figures are so few and far in between, many women either leave STEM, or worse yet, don’t enter the field in the first place.

Change math education to be engaging, interesting, and interactive.

As we’ve written before, math education in America has created negative attitudes at an early age. Clearly, a more accessible math curriculum, correctly implemented, can make a big difference in influencing student’s career plans.

For instance, Japanese math education is dynamic and collaborative. Students work with each other, discuss problems, misunderstandings, and have opportunities to apply it to everyday life, making a potentially abstract concept more real.

Intervene with intensive programs to help junior-high students

Studies have found that early interventions (around junior high school age, or about 10-13), can provide critical boosts to sustaining girls’ interest in fields like computer science. At this point, girls’ attitudes have shown to be positively receptive to pursuing STEM careers.

Positive steps include coding initiatives for junior high students, introducing more diverse and varied role models to middle school students, and building more interactive, hands-on experiences to show that math isn’t just a stodgy collection of integers and formulas.

Ultimately, the strong performance of girls in other nations is enough to tell us that the STEM gap cannot be reduced to biological differences. Instead, it is constructed by systemic causes like culture, systems, and prejudice, and absolutely can (and should) be removed through a concerted, intelligent effort.