A new study reveals that when girls grow up in communities in which there are many women working in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields, they are more likely to take physics classes—a key indicator of interest in engineering. © Corbis/AP Images
New research finds that in communities with large numbers of women employed in STEM occupations, more females take high school physics.
September 3, 2013—Although female high school students have achieved parity with males in many advanced math and science courses, they still are less likely to take physics. Because physics is a course that opens the door to careers in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), this gap has proven both stubborn and troubling to policy makers.
“High school physics stands out as the one advanced math and science course [still causing us] to see a disparity nationwide,” says Catherine Riegle-Crumb, Ph.D., an associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin. “It’s [in] this one course that despite decades of change, we still see a disparity. Now, it’s not huge—it’s about five percentage points—but it doesn’t seem to go away in the manner that we would have predicted.”
Riegle-Crumb and Chelsea Moore, a graduate student in the Department of Sociology at the university, recently examined the physics disparity utilizing academic transcript data gathered in the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (known as Add Health). The sample includes 12,258 school transcripts from students who were followed from middle school through high school from 1994 to 2002. This gives researchers valuable insights into specific schools.
“It is a unique data source. We could actually look at what was happening in schools and across schools on a very large scale. That isn’t often something we are able to do,” Riegle-Crumb says. “We started off just wanting to see how much variation there is across schools in terms of the gender gap in physics.”
It turned out that there are pronounced differences between schools. Males outnumber females in physics in about 60 percent of the schools. But in about 40 percent of schools, females were either taking physics as much as males, or in some cases even taking physics more than males.
Because the data was linked to specific schools, the researchers could then compare the transcript data with data from the U.S. Census Bureau and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics to see if there were correlations to specific factors in the zip codes surrounding the school.
They found that when females were taking high school physics at the same rate as males or higher, there was a high correlation to larger numbers of women in the community employed in STEM fields. When the percentage of women in the community employed in STEM occupations is 7 percent, approximately three standard deviations above the mean of 1.62 percent, females are more likely to take physics than males.
“The higher the percentage of women in the community who are employed in STEM occupations, the more likely it is that girls will take physics,” Riegle-Crumb says. “If you have a high enough level of women in STEM occupations, then girls actually take physics as much as boys—or more than boys.”
This research, “The Gender Gap in High School Physics: Considering the Context of Local Communities,” was published recently in Social Science Quarterly. Riegle-Crumb has extensively researched gender disparity in STEM, examining a variety of factors.
“We’ve looked at things on the negative side, such as teacher bias, and we’ve looked at the positive side on things, such as peer groups,” she says. Female students who have a friendship group that comprises other females who are high performing in math and science are more likely to pursue and be successful in physics and calculus.
“That positive peer emphasis is something that girls respond to,” Riegle-Crumb notes. “What happens in my local world matters. We talk a lot about national stereotypes and national patterns. Those things are true and those things are important. But at the local level, in my school, in my family, in my community, things might look different.”
Although these correlations don’t point to causality, they do suggest areas for policy makers to consider when attempting to design programs to encourage more females to enter STEM education and careers.
“You can’t assign people to friendship groups. And we can’t change where people live. What can we do as educators or interested people in the community or policy makers? What can we actually do? What can we design? We do really need to think more about trying to design research that evaluates the impact of mentoring programs or certain school policies to see how much benefit we do get from those kinds of things,” Riegle-Crumb says.
Riegle-Crumb’s next research project will look at STEM gender disparity by race and ethnicity, considering the intersection of gender with ethnicity.