High School Environments, STEM Orientations, and the Gender Gap in Science and Engineering Degrees
58 Pages Posted: 22 Feb 2012
Date Written: February 21, 2012
Despite the striking reversal of the gender gap in education, women pursue science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) degrees at much lower rates than their male peers do. This study extends existing explanations for these gender differences and examines two important and related dimensions: the life-course timing of a stable gender gap in STEM orientation, and variations across high schools. We argue that the high school years play an important role for gender differences in orientation towards STEM fields as students develop a more realistic and cognitively grounded understanding of their future work lives. During this period, the gender-specific formation of career aspirations is not only shaped by widely shared and hegemonic gender beliefs but also by the local environment in school. Together these two dimensions extend existing explanations of the gender gap in STEM degrees and open concrete avenues for policy intervention. Using the National Education Longitudinal Study (NELS), we then decompose the gender gap in STEM bachelor degrees and show that the solidification of the gender gap in STEM orientations is largely a process that occurs during the high school years. Far from being a fixed attribute of adolescent development, however, we find that the size of the gender gap in STEM orientation is quite sensitive to local high school influences; going to school at a high school that is supportive of a positive orientation by females towards math and science can reduce the gender gap in STEM bachelor degrees by 25% or more.
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