Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


physics-blackboard

(PHOTO: GONIN/SHUTTERSTOCK)

The STEM Gender Gap That Boggles Even Physicists

• November 06, 2013 • 5:15 PM

(PHOTO: GONIN/SHUTTERSTOCK)

A new analysis of the gender gap in physics assessments between male and female students doesn’t solve the STEM disparity, but it’s a good primer on current thought.

That there are fewer women than men in the “hard” sciences is a phenomenon long known but little understood. According to various reports from the U.S. government, about a quarter of all the jobs in the fields collectively known as STEM—for science, technology, engineering, and math—are filled by women, who comprise just under half of the American workforce as a whole. That figure actually reflects an improving picture: Between 1993 and 2008 the share of women working in science or engineering rose from 21 percent of the total to 26 percent, according to the National Science Foundation. And even in the sciences, women are more likely to be in the social and biological sciences (including medicine) than in engineering, math, or computers.

There are lots of reasons posited for this discrepancy–lack of female role models, job demands that aren’t family friendly, or self-imposed stereotypes. The last, as the graphic from the New Jersey Institute of Technology below shows, is one of the most commonly cited reasons for the difference.

In 26 published studies drawn on test results from 12 different universities, “male students almost always outperform female students” both at the start of the course and when it’s over.

But in a data-rich environment like physics, the numbers tell another story. A new meta-analysis in Physical Review Special Topics – Physics Education Research examines why women routinely score lower in physics assessment tests. The multiple-choice tests, known as “concept inventories,” are used to see how well students get the underlying material, and have been a godsend in improving instruction and pushing teachers to be more interactive and less didactic.

In 26 published studies drawn on test results from 12 different universities in the U.S. and Britain, “male students almost always outperform female students” both at the start of the course and when it’s over, the authors write. The difference in scores—12 percent on average for tests about force and motion, with a smaller difference from tests about electromagnetism—showed up across institutions and across teaching methodologies. The difference varies across time and place, but this gender gap never goes away. (Only one instance of women outscoring men showed up, in an electromagnetism assessment at the University of Colorado-Boulder.)

The authors—Adrian Madsen, Sarah B. “Sam” McKagan, and Eleanor C. Sayre, all female and all deeply involved in physics education—set out to find out why. After grappling at length with the issue, they found that the reason is, well, not obvious.

“We haven’t found a miracle that solves the gender gap,” McKagan was quoted in a release from the American Physical Society. This non-discovery wasn’t from a lack of trying. Reviewing the gender gap studies, the trio identified 30 different factors that have been used to explain the differences. They then boiled those down to six families of factors, including differences in background and preparation, gender gaps that appear on other measures, answering questions based on their personal beliefs rather than what they think a “scientist” would answer, effects from teaching methods, so-called “stereotype threat,” and how question wording affects answers. Some of the source studies in the meta-analysis were quite strident in identifying a key issue, but then other work contradicted that finding.

With the exception of stereotype threat’s effect on performance—which got a big maybe here and a big probably elsewhere—none of these families of factors could fully or even largely explain the disparity. Stereotype threat does affect women’s performance in other arenas—being asked to report their gender has been shown to lower girl’s scores on advanced placement calculus tests, for example, and women reminded that women are allegedly poor drivers were then more likely to hit jaywalkers in a driving simulation. (The paper is available for free and for an academic opus it’s accessibly written, so take a look at the deeper analysis on these issues here.)

One possibility the authors didn’t raise is that there might be some sort of inherent biological difference between genders. While it would take a brave person—or perhaps a foolhardy one—to even suggest this, a glance at global science aptitude courtesy of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development suggests that culture, not genes, are at play. Examining 15-year-olds in 65 developed countries, girls outscored boys in the majority. Boys, however, outscored girls in Western European nations, the United States, Canada, and Mexico, as well as Brazil and Chile. (Here’s an interactive scatter plot to make it clear.) Same age, same test, different cultures.

Short of moving to Jordan (the OECD champ for girls outscoring boys), the researchers do have some suggestions they believe are wise even if less than magical. One is that interactive teaching methods—the ones fostered by these concept tests—raise scores for both men and women: “These teaching techniques improve student gains on these tests by four times as much as the size of the gap between men’s and women’s scores,” the release summarizes.

Good teaching is a rising tide that lifts all boats—there’s a stereotype that does some good.

Michael Todd
Most of Michael Todd's career has been spent in newspaper journalism, ranging from papers in the Marshall Islands to tiny California farming communities. Before joining the publishing arm of the Miller-McCune Center, he was managing editor of the national magazine Hispanic Business.

More From Michael Todd

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

November 21 • 4:00 PM

Why Are America’s Poorest Toddlers Being Over-Prescribed ADHD Drugs?

Against all medical guidelines, children who are two and three years old are getting diagnosed with ADHD and treated with Adderall and other stimulants. It may be shocking, but it’s perfectly legal.



November 21 • 2:00 PM

The Best Moms Let Mess Happen

That’s the message of a Bounty commercial that reminds this sociologist of Sharon Hays’ work on “the ideology of intensive motherhood.”


November 21 • 12:00 PM

Eating Disorders Are Not Just for Women

Men, like women, are affected by our cultural preoccupation with thinness. And refusing to recognize that only makes things worse.


November 21 • 10:00 AM

Queens of the South

Inside Asheville, North Carolina’s 7th annual Miss Gay Latina pageant.


November 21 • 9:12 AM

‘Shirtstorm’ and Sexism in Science

Following the recent T-shirt controversy, it’s clear that sexism in science persists. But the forces driving the gender gap are still being debated.


November 21 • 8:00 AM

What Makes a Film Successful in 2014?

Domestic box office earnings are no longer a reliable metric.



November 21 • 6:00 AM

What Makes a City Unhappy?

According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, Dana McMahan splits time between two of the country’s unhappiest cities. She set out to explore the causes of the happiness deficits.


November 21 • 5:04 AM

Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends’ perceptions suggest they know something’s off with their pals but like them just the same.


November 21 • 4:00 AM

In 2001 Study, Black Celebrities Judged Harshly in Rape Cases

When accused of rape, black celebrities were viewed more negatively than non-celebrities. The opposite was true of whites.


November 20 • 4:00 PM

Women, Kink, and Sex Addiction: It’s Not Like the Movies

The popular view is that if a woman is into BDSM she’s probably a sex addict, and vice versa. In fact, most kinky women are perfectly happy—and possibly healthier than their vanilla counterparts.


November 20 • 2:00 PM

A Majority of Middle-Class Black Children Will Be Poorer as Adults

The disturbing findings of a new study.


November 20 • 12:00 PM

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.


November 20 • 10:00 AM

For Juvenile Records, It’s ‘Justice by Geography’

A new study finds an inconsistent patchwork of policies across states for how juvenile records are sealed and expunged.


November 20 • 8:00 AM

Surviving the Secret Childhood Trauma of a Parent’s Drug Addiction

As a young girl, Alana Levinson struggled with the shame of her father’s substance abuse. But when she looked more deeply into the research on children of drug-addicted parents, she realized society’s “conspiracy of silence” was keeping her—and possibly millions of others—from adequately dealing with the experience.



November 20 • 6:00 AM

Extreme Weather, Caused by Climate Change, Is Here. Can Nike Prepare You?

Following the approach we often see from companies marketing products before big storms, Nike focuses on climate change science in the promotion of its latest line of base-layer apparel. Is it a sign that more Americans are taking climate change seriously? Don’t get your hopes up.


November 20 • 5:00 AM

How Old Brains Learn New Tricks

A new study shows that the neural plasticity needed for learning doesn’t vanish as we age—it just moves.


November 20 • 4:00 AM

The FBI’s Dangerous Misrepresentation of Encryption Law

The FBI no more deserves a direct line to your data than it deserves to intercept your mail at the post office. But it doesn’t want you to know that.


November 20 • 2:00 AM

Brain Drain Is Economic Development

It may be hard to see unless you shift your focus from places to people, but both destination and source can benefit from “brain drain.”


November 19 • 9:00 PM

Gays Rights Are Great, but Ixnay on the PDAs

New research suggests both heterosexuals and gay men are uncomfortable with public same-sex kissing.


November 19 • 4:00 PM

The Red Cross’ Own Employees Doubt the Charity’s Ethics

Survey results obtained by ProPublica also show a crisis of trust in the charity’s senior leadership.



November 19 • 2:00 PM

Egg Freezing Isn’t the Feminist Issue You Think It Is

New benefits being offered by Apple and Facebook probably aren’t about discouraging women from becoming mothers at a “natural” age.


Follow us


Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends' perceptions suggest they know something's off with their pals but like them just the same.

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.

How Old Brains Learn New Tricks

A new study shows that the neural plasticity needed for learning doesn't vanish as we age—it just moves.

Ethnic Diversity Deflates Market Bubbles

But it's not in the rainbow and sing-along way you'd hope for. We just don't trust outsiders' judgments.

Online Brain Exercises Are Probably Useless

Even under the guidance of a specialist trainer, computer-based brain exercises have only modest benefits, a new analysis shows.

The Big One

One company, Comcast, will control up to 40 percent of Internet service coverage in the U.S., and 19 of the top 20 cable markets, if a proposed merger with Time Warner Cable is approved by regulators. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.