WHER Chat: The State of Women and Girls in STEM


Burgandy Basulto is a Content Writer at NAWRB. She has a bachelor’s degree in both English and Philosophy, and a master’s degree in Philosophy. When she’s not reading or writing, she loves running, kickboxing, watching films, trying new restaurants she finds via Yelp, and experiencing other cultures during her travels.

The National Girls Collaborative Project presents statistics on their website on the state of girls’ involvement in STEM through primary education – from kindergarten through high school, from an analysis of data from 2016 National Science Foundation reports. Here are some of their main findings regarding differences in STEM involvement for female students compared to their male counterparts. Students regardless of sex, race or ethnicity, enrolled in lower level science courses in 2012 at similar rates. However, students with less-educated parents or with lower socioeconomic status were less likely to take these courses. 

Female and male students enrolled in advanced science courses at comparable rates, but female students were more likely to do so than male students—22 percent compared to 18 percent, respectively. In comparison, only 15 percent of black students and 17 percent of Hispanic students took advanced science courses. 

Enrollment in high level mathematics courses varies significantly by race and ethnicity, parent education level and socioeconomic status but not by sex. For instance, 64 percent of Asian or Pacific Islander students enrolled in these courses compared to 30 percent of black students and 28 percent of Hispanic students. 

Male and female students took AP exams in calculus AB, statistics and chemistry at about the same rate, but male students were more likely to take advanced level AP exams in calculus BC, physics B and physics C. Moreover, male students were more likely than female students to take engineering at 3 percent compared to 1 percent, and computer science courses, at 7 percent compared to 4 percent. Male students also enrolled in AP computer science A at significantly higher rates than their female counterparts at 81 percent compared to 19 percent. 

Higher Education

Using data from the National Center for Education Studies, Catalyst compares the representation of women and girls in STEM from postsecondary institutions and onward for different countries in the “Quick Take: Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM)” report. In the U.S., women earned 35.5 percent of Bachelor’s degrees, 32.6 percent of Master’s degrees and 33.7 percent of PhD’s in all STEM fields. Women graduates had the greatest representation in biological and biomedical sciences with 59.9 percent earning Bachelor’s, 57.3 percent earning Master’s and 53 percent earning PhD’s among graduates in this discipline. 

The lowest representation can be found in the engineering and engineering technologies, and computer and information sciences and support services disciplines. Women comprised 19.7 percent of bachelor’s degrees in the former and 18.7 percent in the latter. Representation of women increased slightly in these disciplines for higher degrees as women earned 25.2 percent of Master’s degrees in engineering and 30.8 percent of Master’s degrees in computer and information sciences. 

The share of STEM degrees is smaller for women of color. In the school year 2015-2016, Asian women earned 5 percent, black women earned 2.9 percent and Latinas earned 3.8 percent of bachelor’s degrees across all STEM fields. 

Labor Force

In the United States, women made up less than a quarter of people employed in STEM occupations in 2015, even though they make up half of the nation’s college-education workforce. Women’s overall underrepresentation in STEM is due largely to a substantial gender gap in engineering and computer occupations. In 2017, for example, women represented 25.5 percent of computer and mathematical occupations and 16.2 percent of architecture and engineering occupations. 

According to the National Science Board’s Science and Engineering Indicators 2016, women make up 35.2 percent of chemists; 11.1 percent of physicists and astronomers; 33.8 percent of environmental engineers; 22.7 percent of chemical engineers; 17.5 percent of civil, architectural, and sanitary engineers; 17.1 percent of industrial engineers; 10.7 percent of electrical or computer hardware engineers; and 7.9 percent of mechanical engineers. 

Women scientists and engineers are concentrated in different occupations than men with a large share working in the social sciences, at 62 percent, and in the biological, agricultural, and environmental life sciences, at 48 percent. As stated above, women made up a relatively low share in engineering and computer and mathematical sciences in comparison. 

Women of color in the United States are especially underrepresented in science and engineering jobs as fewer than two in ten jobs were held by this group in 2015. Asian women comprised 6.5 percent of science and engineering employees, black women made up 1.6 percent, and Latinas represented 1.8 percent.

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