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Why Are There Fewer Female Students in High Level STEM Classes?

Since 1831, when Catherine Hall and Alice Robinson became the first women in American history to receive degrees from an institution of higher education, women in academia have thrived and contributed immensely to many fields.

Despite such victories, gender inequalities persist in the professional world. In the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), women are extremely underrepresented, and this gender disparity is apparent in classrooms too. In Shoshana O’keefe’s computer science classes at Berkeley High School (BHS), girls tend to constitute only a quarter of the classroom. Similarly, the gender makeup in Michael Weitz’s BC Calculus classes is an uneven ratio of 30 girls to 46 boys.

There are multiple layers to unpack in order to discover why there is a lack of female representation in high-level STEM classes. According to O’keefe, “There are headwinds against women at almost every level. At the educational level, at the childhood level, and again in the professional level.” Starting as early as childhood, subtle messages through the media enforce the idea that the STEM field is reserved for males. O’keefe noted that Mr. Mopps’, a local Berkeley toy store run by BHS alumni, combats this by refusing to sell any toy labelled for just one gender. “There are people pushing back on it, but it’s still absolutely prevalent in marketing. So that alone sends children a message,” said O’keefe.

Role models are key when setting life ambitions, so having a small amount of women in STEM to look up to is another part of this explanation. “Having female teachers teach STEM is very important, and they can make other girls and women feel like they could do it too,” said Chaya Haugland, a junior in Academic Choice (AC) who takes computer science. O’keefe agreed that positive female influences and representation are crucial. “I’m very happy to be a female teaching computer science; it’s a great way to be a direct role model,” said O’keefe.

Though she has only taught Computer Science classes at BHS for three years, O’keefe knows that the gender imbalance has lessened over the years. She recalled her experience in Advanced Placement (AP) Computer Science at BHS in 1995, saying: “I was the only girl out of maybe nine students. So it’s improved since then.”

During childhood, girls are often discouraged as students. A girl might get a math problem wrong and feel embarrassed. In O’keefe’s opinion, experiences like this may affect her interests later on in life. “That can be really damaging, so then they don’t study it, and they don’t think they’re good at it, and then they’re not interested in it because why would you be interested in something that isn’t fun,” described O’keefe. 

Another common experience among girls throughout their education is having to prove their intellectual abilities. “It’s a lot of responsibility if you are the only woman in the room, because you are representing your entire gender,” said Haugland, describing what many call “Stereotype Threat.” Similar to what people of color often refer to as “Minority Tax,” in O’keefe’s words, “It’s like you’re too afraid of playing into a negative stereotype about your demographic so it holds you back.” Being in a male dominated classroom is often an environment where women find themselves fighting these stereotypes.

Despite such stereotypes, female students who persevere through the gender bias in classrooms might actually end up being more rigorous students when they get to higher levels of education. “If anything, seeing more boys in my STEM classes has driven me to improve academically and not let myself be discouraged by the fact that there’s fewer girls in the room,” said Anabella Hernandez, a senior in AC who is interested in pursuing a career in STEM. Having to overcome the challenges of being a woman, as well as being a Mexican-American, has pushed Hernandez to find purpose in her classes.

Having a disproportionately low amount of women in STEM positions is not only unfair, but dangerous for society. Aaron Glimme, an AP Chemistry teacher at BHS, understands that due to misogyny and gender bias, “there’s a loss, for us as a society, of [women] who could make amazing contributions to developing our understanding of the universe, solve problems, and make life better for everybody.” Haugland agreed that “because we all use so much tech, having women not being involved in its creation will create a lot of problems that we might not be seeing now, but we will see in the future.”

The ultimate question is, how can STEM become a more inclusive space for women? There are many ways to work towards this. Glimme, for example, makes a conscious effort to create a gender bias-free classroom. “I try to make sure that I call on as many, if not more, girls to answer questions and be involved than boys, because I think that can be really helpful,” he explained. 

Additionally, it’s necessary that we tear down stereotypes. Hernandez reflected: “Men in white lab coats working alone shouldn’t be the main portrayal of what it means to be a scientist. Scientists work together to achieve a common goal, and the color of your skin or gender shouldn’t be the first thing that pops into your head when you hear the word STEM.”

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