Encourages by teachers, if not trends, female students pursuing STEM

BY KYLIE YEATMAN

Walking into her second period AP Computer Science course, junior Kelly Wong sits in a class taken by only three girls. On a national level, Wong is not alone—the national average for APCS test-takers sees a male-to-female ratio of 4:1, according to The College Board.

 

This year, the CHS class had a 18:4 ratio.

 

Wong, who plans to go into aerospace engineering, reveals that she initially felt discomfort when signing up for more science-oriented courses.

 

“Being able to engineer using code is usually considered to be a ‘boy skill,’” explains Wong, who also recalls feeling discouraged from taking industrial arts in her junior year due to the number of boys signing up for the course. “There just seems to be a general lack of women in the scientific field.”

 

According to the American Association of University Women, women’s lack of involvement within various fields may be related to the concept of a “stereotype threat.”

 

“Stereotype threat arises in situations where a negative stereotype is relevant to evaluating performance,” explains the publication, writing that women may feel less empowered to pursue STEM fields as a result of negative gender stereotypes.

 

“There’s certainly something to be said about the differences in socialization between men and women,” says CHS science teacher Tom Dooner, adding that girls in high school are more likely to take physical sciences, including AP Environmental Science and AP Biology, over more rigorous courses like AP Chemistry.

 

“There’s women going into the life sciences—medicine, dental—potentially in even greater numbers than men,” Dooner adds. “One of the main reasons being due to the way we teach the classes at the university level.”

 

Dooner’s most rigorous course, AP Biology, sees a male-to-female ratio of 5:4. It began the year with an even split, which also held true for the 2016-17 school year.

 

Jason Maas-Baldwin, who teaches both AP Environmental Science and AP Chemistry, cites his own classes as examples of the difference in gender ratios.

 

“Historically, there have been more girls in the AP Environmental course than there have been in AP Chemistry,” Maas-Baldwin recounts.

 

In the Environmental Club, which Maas-Baldwin oversees, the instructor recounts how many more girls opt to join the club.

 

“I think it makes sense that there are more girls in the Environmental Club, considering girls in my experience are more willing to commit their free time to issues they’re passionate about,” Environmental Club member Sienna Anderson says.

 

2015 CHS graduate and U.C. Davis engineering major Gabriella Lahti observes that many science-based core classes, including advanced chemistry and physics courses, were even in male-to-female ratio; yet, many science-based electives remained relatively male-dominated.

 

“There were three guys and nine girls in AP Chemistry and an even ratio Honors Physics,” Lahti reflects. “But in Automotives, there were only three girls in my class.”

 

Automotives, a more math-based science class, has historically been male-dominated. In contrast, in the U.S., women outnumber men in total number of life science careers filled. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, women made up roughly 54.9 percent of all life science careers in 2015. Female physical science officials made up 30 percent of the total.

 

One study from the National Bureau of Economic Research looks to explain why the number of women tends to fall shorter in physical sciences, putting partial blame on the part of biases that have followed children since their elementary educations, including those from teachers, parents and even the media they consume. The study showed how implicit gender biases on the part of adults often discouraged girls from participating in more rigorous, science-based courses.

 

“I think that it makes sense,” sophomore and environmental club leader Mia Poletti says. “During elementary school, I remember feeling like boys were more encouraged to pursue science and math courses over girls.”

 

However, Lahti reflects that, regardless of gender, CHS students were encouraged to take STEM courses.

 

“I’ve never seen significant encouragement to either gender to pursue STEM more,” Lahti notes.  “It’s usually the kids more willing to take on academically challenging courses that are encouraged to pursue STEM.”

 

Similarly, college and career counselor Darren Johnston says that he tries to create an equal-opportunity space for all students to express their interests, whether that be in STEM or otherwise.

 

“We’ve seen a growth in females taking on medicine-related disciplines,” Johnston says. “The base growth has been in engineering mainly. There’s always been women in the biological sciences. It’s important that we see women filling these roles, and it’s great to see that happening.”