The American Association of University Women, a membership, research, grant-making, and advocacy organization dedicated to gender equity, donates as much as $4.5 million annually to support women in sciences. While there are an increasing number of women entering the fields of science—in 2009 women made up 45 percent of working biologists and 14 percent of engineers, up from 28 percent and 1 percent in 1960—AAUW recently published a report to uncover why more women aren’t entering these fields. Titled Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, the report revealed eight findings, each demonstrating that social and environmental factors clearly contribute to the underrepresentation of women in science and engineering. Here are three of the findings.
1. In math and science, a growth mindset benefits women: According to Carol Dweck, a psychologist at Stanford University who looks at beliefs about intelligence, when students are taught that their intelligence can expand with experience and learning, they do better on math tests and are more likely to say they want to continue to study math in the future. This is important because encountering obstacles and challenging problems is in the nature of scientific work. When girls and women believe they have a fixed amount of intelligence, they are more likely to lose confidence and disengage from science and engineering when they inevitably encounter difficulties in their course work.
2. Stereotypes affect performance: While it may seem a thing of the past, negative stereotypes about girls’ abilities in math and science persist and can negatively affect girls’ math performance. Research by Dr. Joshua Aronson, a psychologist at New York University, shows that when negative stereotypes about girls’ math abilities are brought to test-takers’ attention, they can measurably lower girls’ test performance through a phenomenon known as stereotype threat. For example, a female student taking a difficult math test might experience an extra burden of worry that if she performs poorly her performance will reinforce and confirm the stereotype that women are not good at math. This added burden of worry can adversely affect her performance.
3. Women self-assess themselves lower in “male” fields: Girls’ lower self-assessment of their math ability, even in the face of good grades and test scores, along with their higher standard for performance in “masculine” fields, helps explain why fewer girls than boys aspire to science and engineering careers. If you think about this finding as it relates to engineering, a field in which men are considered to excel, it suggests that girls believe that they have to be better in all the math and science and engineering classes that go into earning an engineering degree than boys believe they have to be in order to think of themselves as good engineering students.
For the complete Why So Few? report by AAUW, please visit
NOTE: AAUW thanks the National Science Foundation Gender in Science and Engineering Program for their grant to research and write Why So Few?, as well as AAUW members whose generous contributions made this report possible.