Nurturing the Study of Nature

This article is part of an ongoing blog series, titled Inequality in STEM: a Dive Into the Data. In this series, we cover recent research exploring and quantifying inequality in STEM. We'll discuss different aspects of inequality, including barriers to career advancement and a chilly social climate, as well as the efficacy of various interventions to combat bias. Our goal with these pieces is to provide clear summaries of the data related to bias in STEM, giving scientific evidence to back up the personal experiences of URMs in STEM fields.

While demand in recent years for skilled workers in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) has grown at a staggering rate, men have claimed a larger share of those positions and earnings compared to women (U.S. Department of Commerce). Biased hiring practices may explain the struggles of recent graduates, but men outnumber women at every point in the STEM pipeline. In fact, gender imbalances in enthusiasm toward science can be observed as early as elementary school. Addressing the shortage of women in STEM disciplines will be paramount to the long-term health of the United States economy, yet the sources of “leaks” in this pipeline—times in which more women leave STEM than men—have not been studied in detail.

To better understand the disappearance of women in STEM, Daniel Grunspan and his colleagues at the University of Washington took a closer look at an important checkpoint in scientific careers: undergraduate introductory biology courses (Grunspan et al., 2016). Intro biology provides a unique opportunity to understand underrepresentation of women in STEM—more women than men enroll in these courses, yet men hold the majority of  scientific positions in academia and industry. Furthermore, confidence in introductory courses is likely to have a large influence on emerging career plans, making them a natural target for future interventions.

  Figure 1:  In three instances of an undergraduate biology class, the students perceived as most competent by their peers are outspoken men. Each figure represents a student. Male students are shown in green, female students are shown in orange. Students identified by their instructor as outspoken are shown with a speech bubble. Each student’s GPA is shown below the figure, with the height of the figure indicating the number of votes they received from other students. Adapted from Grunspan et al., 2016, Figure 3.

Figure 1: In three instances of an undergraduate biology class, the students perceived as most competent by their peers are outspoken men. Each figure represents a student. Male students are shown in green, female students are shown in orange. Students identified by their instructor as outspoken are shown with a speech bubble. Each student’s GPA is shown below the figure, with the height of the figure indicating the number of votes they received from other students. Adapted from Grunspan et al., 2016, Figure 3.

Grunspan surveyed students across three biology courses at a large university, asking them to report which of their classmates had good understanding of the course material. Using the survey responses and student grades, the authors constructed an exponential graphical model (a framework that can be used to describe and predict interactions in social networks) which let them estimate the degree to which different factors contributed to the likelihood that a student would be identified as a high-performer by their peers. These estimates suggest that, after controlling for actual competency and outspokenness, men are still more likely to say that other men have mastery of the course material. Women in the study, on the other hand, accurately perceived men and women as being equally capable. The result is that in biology classrooms, the students that are perceived as most competent are almost exclusively outspoken men (Figure 1), whereas women working at the same caliber as their male colleagues are consistently undervalued.

This effect is not unique to biology. In 2016, a separate group of researchers found that women are less likely to persist in a series of calculus classes due to lack of confidence in their understanding of the course material, whereas men did not report lack of confidence as a reason for switching out of the calculus track (Ellis et al., 2016).

Confidence in course material and a feeling of accomplishment are key to persisting in any field. When hard work and talent goes unappreciated, skilled students are discouraged from pursuing training and employment in that domain. This hurdle is amplified during the formative stages of one’s career, making undergraduate biology courses a critical checkpoint in the nurturing of aspiring biologists. Interventions at this stage are thus likely to have a dramatic impact on the number of women who continue on to STEM positions in industry and academia.

References

Ellis, J., Fosdick, B. K., & Rasmussen, C. (2016). Women 1.5 times more likely to leave STEM pipeline after calculus compared to men: Lack of mathematical confidence a potential culprit. PloS one11(7), e0157447.

Grunspan, D. Z., Eddy, S. L., Brownell, S. E., Wiggins, B. L., Crowe, A. J., & Goodreau, S. M. (2016). Males under-estimate academic performance of their female peers in undergraduate biology classrooms. PloS one11(2), e0148405.