When she was in high school, she was called a “tough cookie,” but girls are still getting pushed around, she and other women say. Women are expected to excel academically and in sports and to have a certain “character” that is valuable to their families, she says.
But for most college students, she adds, it’s simply the right thing to do to make up for the absence of female teachers, teachers who have to be physically bigger and stronger than males and teachers who can only teach in a specific discipline because there are no other schools to do it, said Katie Wasserstrom, an associate professor of education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who studies how women have progressed in the educational system. “In terms of our role in society, women have long been underrepresented, especially in certain occupations. And that’s why it took women so long to gain equal employment opportunities.”
Wasserstrom is one of many scientists who are examining how different educational groups have fared in getting a fair shake in recent decades. She points to women in STEM fields having an even stronger showing than male counterparts; she cites the study of female students who entered Harvard Business School and the Harvard Graduate School of Economics, who were twice as likely as men to earn a doctorate and five times as likely to have a job in finance.
While some studies have focused on gender differences across all education levels, others point at the impact of education, such as women with less schooling, women whose parents attended schools less likely to have the same level of education and women whose parents are more educated.
Some of those differences can be seen even in the very fields where women are making a difference in education — in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields. A 2012 study by the National Science Foundation found women are four times as likely as men to earn a bachelor’s degree from four of America’s top science universities.
The gap between male and female performance on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) has gotten worse over the past 20 years, Wasserstrom and other researchers said. In math, women are now twice as likely as men to finish college, she found in her 2014 research. But men still make up a majority of those who earn doctorates but also earn less than a college degree. In the STEM fields, women are about three times as likely as men to earn a bachelor’s degree, said Wasserstrom. That gender gap is even larger in math but has shrunk since the 1990s.
But it’s not all about gender. Wasserstrom’s 2014 report found that in science, women have an edge at math and science, with a 1.7-to-1 advantage in math. In other areas of the educational system, such as math and science, women have a slight edge. In math, women are nearly twice as likely as men to earn a master’s degree. In science and technology, women are about twice as likely as men to earn a doctorate. In the humanities and social sciences, men outnumber women, Wasserstrom wrote.
The math, science and social sciences fields also are home to a large and diverse group of high achieving women. There are a number of reasons for this, including higher salaries, more women in high school and college than men in the United States, and women taking less time out of college.
But for decades, women have struggled to advance to positions similar to those held by men. In the 1990s, the women who graduated with the greatest math or science, math or science-related jobs at universities with more male students were all women. But today, there aren’t that many qualified women, and a large percentage of men earn such positions, according to an analysis published this month by the Pew Research Center. And it looks as though women are catching up, says Wasserstrom, who is writing a book on career paths in science and technology.
The research in Wasserstrom’s research found that among high school students and high school dropouts, gender difference in college enrollment was most significant. Women make up nearly 70 percent of college students and nearly 30 percent of college dropouts in math and science, and about 80 percent in the humanities and social sciences. But women still lag behind men, at least overall.
“One of the reasons women haven’t really gotten the kind of college that they want is that the field that’s needed for the job is not there yet,” Wasserstrom said. But there is hope, she added. “One thing we know is that we can make progress in these fields…. In the fields where there might be gaps, the girls could be the ones who will get them.”
This story was updated Aug. 25 to include the names of the institutions examined in the Pew Research Center analysis.