Achievement isn’t why more men are studying physics, engineering, and computer science

Photo credit: Pixabay / CC0 Public Domain

While some STEM majors have a one-to-one ratio of men to women, Physics, Engineering, and Computer Science (PECS) majors consistently have some of the largest imbalances between US majors – with about four men per woman in the US Head. In a new study published today in the peer-reviewed research journal Science, NYU researchers find that this inequality is not caused by higher math or science performance in men. On the contrary, the researchers found that men with very low high school GPAs in math and science and very low SAT math scores chose these math-intensive majors just as often as women with much better math and science scores.

“Physics, engineering, and computing differently attract and hold back men who are underperforming, resulting in women being underrepresented in these majors but having higher demonstrated STEM proficiency and academic achievement,” said Joseph R. Cimpian, senior executive Researcher and Associate Professor of Economics and Educational Policy at NYU Steinhardt.

Cimpian and colleagues analyzed data from nearly 6,000 US high school students over a seven-year period – from the beginning of high school through the student’s junior college year. When the researchers ranked students based on their high school performance in math and science, they found that male students in the 1st percentile studied PECS at the same rate as women in the 80th percentile, which is a stark contrast between high academic levels Performance of the female student with a focus on PECS compared to peers.

The researchers also reviewed the data for students who did not intend to study areas of PECS but who later decided to do so. They found that the lowest-performing male student was at least as likely to enter one of these majors as the top-performing student.

Researchers at New York University’s Steinhardt School found that there are more men than women who specialize in physics, engineering, and computer science, not because men perform better. On the contrary, the researchers found that men with very low high school GPAs in math and science and very low SAT math scores chose these math-intensive majors just as often as women with much better math and science scores. This video provides additional insight. Photo credit: New York University

The extensive dataset the researchers used was collected by the U.S. Department of Education and included measurements of many factors previously associated with the gender gap in STEM. The NYU team tested whether a variety of factors could explain the gender gap equally well among students with high, average, and low achievement. While the PECS gender gap among high achievers could be explained by other factors in the data, such as: For example, such factors as a student’s previous career goals and confidence in their academic ability might not explain the higher rates of low-achievement men in these fields.

This new work suggests that interventions to improve gender equality need to be more nuanced in terms of student performance.

“Our results suggest that building STEM confidence and earlier career goals could increase the number of high-performing women in PECS, but the same types of interventions are less likely to affect girls with average and lower performance, and that Beyond all of these student factors, underperforming men are drawn to these fields, “said Cimpian.

“These new discoveries, combined with the emerging literature on cultures that favor women and discourage women in PECS, suggest that efforts to break down barriers for women in these areas would improve the overall quality of students,” continued Cimpian.

The study shows that perceived gender bias towards women is a dominant factor in college choices

More information:
JR Cimpian el al., “Understanding Persistent Gender Differences in STEM”, Science (2020). science.sciencemag.org/cgi/doi… 1126 / science.aba7377 Provided by New York University

Quote: Achievement isn’t why more men are studying physics, engineering, and computer science (2020, June 18), accessed April 10, 2021 from https://phys.org/news/2020-06-isnt-men-majoring -physics- science.html

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