Psychology Women and Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM)
Sylvia Beyer
  • LAST REVIEWED: 10 May 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 January 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199828340-0161


A nation’s prosperity depends to a significant degree on a highly educated workforce in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). If the United States continues to educate scientists and engineers at current levels, there will be a shortage of 1 million STEM workers in the next decade, adversely affecting global competitiveness (President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, 2012). In 2010 only 28 percent of the US STEM workforce was female (National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics 2013, cited under Statistical Compendia). If more women were to enter STEM, this would not only relieve the shortage of STEM workers, but also provide lucrative jobs to women, and include their perspectives, fostering innovation and scientific progress. Shortages of women in STEM exist in other countries and are being addressed with varying levels of success (see Cross-Cultural Findings). However, the majority of research efforts examining the reasons behind women’s underrepresentation in STEM have been conducted in the United States, often funded by the US government (e.g., by the National Science Foundation’s “Broadening Participation in Computing” and “Research on Gender in Science and Engineering” programs). The Theories researchers employ focus on different kinds of explanations for female underrepresentation in STEM with varying ramifications and implications for interventions. For example, some researchers focus on biological explanations, attributing female underrepresentation in STEM to gender differences in Quantitative, Spatial, and Verbal Abilities. Other researchers focus on psychological factors such as Stereotype Threat, women’s low Self-Efficacy in male-dominated fields, a lack of Sense of Belonging or Identification with a STEM Field, and negative Stereotypes about STEM that conflict with women’s Gender Roles and Values. Furthermore, there exist cultural and institutional barriers that deter women or make it difficult for them to succeed in STEM fields. These include a lack of Role Models, the Role of Parents in encouraging females, Pedagogical Issues, difficulties in the workplace such as a chilly climate, problems with Work-Life Balance that disproportionately affect women who typically are the primary caretakers of children and elderly parents, and outright Bias and Discrimination. Furthermore, it is important to discuss effective intervention strategies. This entry also examines whether women’s underrepresentation in STEM is a cross-cultural phenomenon. Striving for currency, this article will focus almost exclusively on work that has been published within the last ten years. Rather than presenting research on individual STEM disciplines separately, this entry discusses the major issues and causes across the disciplines. This provides for a less repetitive presentation and facilitates comparisons within one topic across disciplines (e.g., under the heading Self-Efficacy the reader can compare research on computer science, technology, and engineering). I also note that certain STEM fields are overrepresented among research on specific causes. For example, most research on Stereotype Threat focuses on math. And certain STEM fields have received more research attention than others. Computer science, science as a general area, and engineering have been well studied. Math has been studied well in K-12 samples, but less well in higher education. Specific science fields like physics, astronomy, chemistry, or the geosciences have received much less attention.

General Overviews

The literature on women and STEM is vast and complex. This section presents overviews that help orient the reader to the subject matter. Ceci, et al. 2014 presents an extensive summary of the most recent research on causes of female underrepresentation in STEM from high school course-taking through full professor salaries. Ceci and Williams 2007 provides an excellent review of the major issues on the topic. Each chapter is written by top researchers. Hill, et al. 2010 presents eight research projects that suggest empirically based Best Practices for Intervention Strategies. This report is highly readable for those less familiar with the topic. Jacobs 2005 reviews the empirical literature on female underrepresentation from 1980 to 2005, adding a historical perspective to the present Oxford Bibliographies article, which focuses on research within the last ten years. The emphasis is mostly on psychological research, much of it from a developmental perspective including K-12-aged children. Margolis and Fisher 2002 is a well-known classic. It details the efforts aimed at increasing the number of female majors by the computer science department at Carnegie Mellon University. Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development 2006 provides data and research on women’s underrepresentation in science from an international perspective (see Cross-Cultural Findings). Wang and Degol 2013 provides an excellent theoretical and empirical overview of research on female underrepresentation in STEM. Watt and Eccles 2008 provides an excellent introduction to psychological research on female career choices written by leading researchers.

  • Ceci, Stephen J., Donna K. Ginther, S. Shulamit Kahn, and Wendy Williams. 2014. Women in academic science: Explaining the gap. Psychological Science in the Public Interest.

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    This article by leading researchers from psychology and economics summarizes and critiques the major explanations for women’s underrepresentation in many (though not all) STEM fields. A great strength is that the results are broken down by individual discipline, making for a much more fine-grained analysis.

  • Ceci, Stephen J., and Wendy M. Williams, eds. 2007. Why aren’t more women in science? Top researchers debate the evidence. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

    DOI: 10.1037/11546-000E-mail Citation »

    This book, edited by two highly respected researchers, contains chapters by eminent scientists discussing quantitative, spatial, and verbal abilities, Theories, Self-Efficacy, and Stereotypes about STEM to explain the underrepresentation of women in the sciences.

  • Hill, Catherine, Christianne Corbett, and Andresse St. Rose. 2010. Why so few? Women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Washington, DC: American Association of University Women.

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    This report by a nonprofit organization highlights major findings on the underrepresentation of women in STEM by showcasing eight research projects. This highly readable report is a great introduction to non-experts and the general public. Recommendations for how to increase the representation of women emanating from these research projects are provided (see Best Practices for Intervention Strategies). Thus, these recommendations are evidence-based.

  • Jacobs, Janis E. 2005. Twenty-five years of research on gender and ethnic differences in math and science career choices: What have we learned? In Leaks in the pipeline to math, science, and technology careers. Edited by Janis E. Jacobs and Sandra D. Simpkins, 85–94. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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    This chapter reviews twenty-five years of research on gender differences in STEM career choices. The author notes that despite an almost complete absence of gender differences in quantitative, spatial, and verbal ability”, gender differences in course choices and STEM career aspirations persist. Strong social support and high math Self-Efficacy increase female participation in STEM. The impact of the low interest in STEM careers for US competitiveness and innovation is addressed.

  • Margolis, Jane, and Allen Fisher. 2002. Unlocking the clubhouse: Women in computing. Cambridge, MA: MIT.

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    This classic is included in this list despite being published more than ten years ago. Its findings and evidence-based recommendations for increasing women’s representation in computer science (see Best Practices for Intervention Strategies) have had a major impact on researchers, instructors, and administrators in the STEM fields. This is a must-read for anyone interested in the problem of female underrepresentation.

  • Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. 2006. Women in scientific careers: Unleashing the potential. Paris: OECD.

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    This book provides an international perspective about women in STEM careers. In various chapters written by experts, it examines historical trends, different Theories, Cross-Cultural Findings, and topics as diverse as Work-Life Balance issues and Best Practices for Intervention Strategies for promoting women in science in research, the public sector, and the workforce.

  • Wang, Ming-Te, and Jessica Degol. 2013. Motivational pathways to STEM career choices: Using expectancy–value perspective to understand individual and gender differences in STEM fields. Developmental Review 33.4: 304–340.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.dr.2013.08.001E-mail Citation »

    This review paper provides an excellent summary of research on the underrepresentation of women in STEM using the expectancy-value model. However, what the title of the article does not reveal is that other explanations, such as the biological perspective, are also addressed, making this article a great choice for anyone seeking a fairly comprehensive overview.

  • Watt, Helen G., and Jacquelynne S. Eccles, eds. 2008. Gender and occupational outcomes: Longitudinal assessments of individual, social, and cultural influences. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

    DOI: 10.1037/11706-007E-mail Citation »

    The editors of this book, who are highly respected researchers, have assembled a top-notch cadre of researchers reviewing work on gendered occupational choices, including factors that lead to female underrepresentation in STEM. This book excels at examining psychological factors.

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