Psychology Women and Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM)
by
Sylvia Beyer
  • LAST REVIEWED: 10 May 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 October 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199828340-0161

Introduction

A nation’s prosperity depends to a significant degree on a highly educated workforce in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). In 2017 only 29 percent of the US STEM workforce was female, even though women represent 51.5 percent of the population (see National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics 2019, 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 program and Research on Gender in Science and Engineering program). 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 People in STEM and the Field of 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, General Workplace Issues 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. Only in the early 21st century have researchers started to pay attention to Intersectionality. Gender intersects with race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, first-generation college student status, and many more. We now know that these intersectionalities affect outcomes in important ways. Furthermore, it is important to discuss Best Practices for Intervention Strategies. This article also examines Cross-Cultural Findings regarding the phenomenon of women’s underrepresentation in STEM. Striving for currency, this article will focus on work that has been published within the early 21st century. Rather than presenting research on individual STEM disciplines separately, this article 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). It is also worth noting 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. Beyer 2016 reviews the major factors implicated in female underrepresentation in computer science. Bilimoria and Lord 2015 is an edited volume with a focus on issues facing women in academia and professional careers in STEM. 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. Cheryan, et al. 2017 is a review paper summarizing the major obstacles for women in STEM. 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. Kanny, et al. 2014 reviews forty years of research to identify five main factors affecting female underrepresentation in STEM. Wang and Degol 2013 provides an excellent theoretical and empirical overview of research on female underrepresentation in STEM.

  • Beyer, Sylvia. 2016. Women in computer science: Deterrents. In Fuzzy–XML. Vol. 2 of Encyclopedia of computer science and technology. 2d ed. Edited by Phillip A. Laplante, 871–879. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press.

    DOI: 10.1081/E-ECST2-120054030E-mail Citation »

    This review examines the major factors impacting female underrepresentation in computer science. It reviews research on Quantitative, Spatial, and Verbal Abilities; Self-Efficacy; Sense of Belonging or Identification with a STEM Field; Stereotypes about People in STEM and the Field of STEM; Gender Roles and Values; Role Models; the Role of Parents; and Pedagogical Issues.

  • Bilimoria, Diana, and Linley Lord, eds. 2015. Women in STEM careers: International perspectives on increasing workforce participation, advancement and leadership. Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar.

    E-mail Citation »

    This book contains eleven chapters, each one representing a research program focusing on women’s underrepresentation in STEM. The book’s emphasis is on the workforce, especially academia and professional settings.

  • 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.

    E-mail Citation »

    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.

  • Cheryan, Sapna, Sianna A. Ziegler, Amanda K. Montoya, and Lily Jiang. 2017. Why are some STEM fields more gender balanced than others? Psychological Bulletin 143:1–35.

    DOI: 10.1037/bul0000052E-mail Citation »

    This article provides a cogent review of the major factors that impact female underrepresentation in STEM, focusing also on why some STEM disciplines fare better than others in attracting women. The main factors that emerge are Sense of Belonging or Identification with a STEM Field, lack of experience, and Self-Efficacy.

  • 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.

    E-mail Citation »

    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 nonexperts 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.

  • Kanny, M. Allison, Linda J. Sax, and Tiffani A. Riggers-Piehl. 2014. Investigating forty years of STEM research: How explanations for the gender gap have evolved over time. Journal of Women and Minorities in Science and Engineering 20:127–148.

    E-mail Citation »

    This article presents an overview of forty years of research on female underrepresentation in STEM. They identify five types of explanations: background characteristics (see Quantitative, Spatial, and Verbal Abilities), educational issues (see Pedagogical Issues), psychological factors (e.g., Self-Efficacy, Sense of Belonging or Identification with a STEM Field, and Gender Roles and Values), family influences (see Role of Parents), and perceptions of STEM fields (see Stereotypes about People in STEM and the Field of STEM).

  • 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.

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