Have you noticed the lack of girls in upper-level STEM classes at your school? I have at mine. AP Physics: nine girls in two classes. Engineering: four girls. BC Calculus: two girls. Econ: three girls. Advanced Topics in Computer Science: one girl.
More specifically, the classes which lack girls are the math-based STEM classes. After noticing this pattern, I reached out to some of my peers in male-dominated classes to hear their opinion of these numbers. The most common response I received from the young men was not “wow this is an issue,” but “see, its girls’ fault for not signing up for the STEM classes… they are setting themselves up to fail.”
Personally, I think there is a fundamental issue in the assumption that it is girls’ fault for not signing up for the classes in the first place. It ignores context and shifts the blame onto girls. And, well, the context of this situation is multifaceted and traces back to society’s expectations of young women.
It’s also intimidating to enter an environment where you are the very clear minority. That minority groups do not perform as well on tests is an observed phenomenon called the stereotype threat.
In a widely recognized study, women did significantly worse on math exams when they were reminded they were girls before taking the test. On the other hand, when men were reminded of their gender, they performed better. So, even though boys being better at STEM classes is a stereotype, there is clear evidence that there is a reason why women struggle to do well in a room full of men. That reason is not that women are inherently worse at math.
For example, I grew up with first with dolls, then Legos. Even though I ended up building most of my younger brother’s Legos and my parents tried to buy me a range of toys, all the toys given to me were pink and purple, Easy-Bake ovens, and yes, dolls.
I liked these toys — there’s nothing wrong with them — but they are about creative play, potentially predisposing me to lean towards the more creative humanities classes. On the other hand, my brother learned how to problem solve, a skill set which is at the core of being an engineer. And what about the girls who don’t have brothers or parents who try to buy gender-neutral toys?
Though one year’s data is not alone enough to generate substantial conclusions, results from the 2017 AP exams do demonstrate a similar pattern to ours here at my school: fewer girls nationwide took math-based STEM classes.
According to the College Board, in 2017 only a quarter of the students who took the AP Computer Science exam identify as female. Since academic interests in high school often lead to college interests and future career path, it is imperative that girls are exposed early on to these math-based STEM classes.
To be clear, I in no way mean to demonize the young men at my school for taking math based STEM classes. Instead, I want to emphasize the idea of equity, not equality in high school. Although anyone of any gender can equally sign up for AP Physics, perhaps girls need an extra push to help close the gap of women in STEM classes.