Articleequal opportunities - research

Girls in science,
the role of teachers

Foto: Flickr/Discover Science & Engineering

Despite some improvements, women continue to be extremely underrepresented in science and engineering. A new research shows that girls may choose different courses in high school and college because they believe that men are better than women in math and science. Teachers can change that

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In the last decades, the US have undergone an impressive change in the role of women in society. Indeed, nowadays female students outnumber and outperform their male classmates in high school and college. However, despite these progresses, female students are still less likely to choose advance math and science classes in high school. Similarly, only one-third of the undergraduate students in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) are women. Moreover, in some fields, like computer science, the proportion of women has actually decreased over time. These patterns are reflected in the labor market, where most of the scientists are white men and firms in the Silicon Valley struggle to attract women. The numbers are even worse in Europe.

Several scholars have argued that these outcomes may be due to different individual preferences between men and women. For instance, women could sort themselves into occupations which offer lower wages, but higher work-family flexibility. In a new research article, I offered an alternative explanation: female students may choose different courses because they believe that men are better than women in math and science. Therefore, similarly to the conclusions in the PISA-OECD report, these beliefs may lower the self-confidence in their abilities, as well as lead them to think that these courses are inappropriate for them. This creates a vicious cycle in which female underrepresentation in STEM discourage girls to be interested in science, thus perpetuating the lack of qualified women in science.

Indeed, I have used several econometric techniques in order to demonstrate that female students are more likely to take advance math and science classes in high school and declare a STEM major in college if they believe that boys are not better than girls in math and science.

High-school teacher can have an important role in this context. Female students are less likely to believe that boys are better in math and science when their teachers in these subjects are women. Such positive effect is consistent with the idea that female teachers may act as a role model. Furthermore, it is in line with the positive effect of female leaders on girl aspirations and educational attainments.  

Gender is not the only key variable. The same result is obtained when teachers (of both sexes) value and listen to students’ ideas, thus creating a positive learning environment. Therefore, it is important to train teachers and inform them about the impact that their behavior in class can have.

It is also worth stressing that female teachers have a positive impact on boys as well: male students are less likely to support this idea of male superiority in math and science when their teacher is a woman. This is potentially a groundbreaking result since those boys will continue to interact with women in college, at work, and within their family. As a result, their opinion will help improve the learning and working environment, and it will also have a positive intergenerational effect, thus contributing to break the current vicious cycle which pushes women out of STEM fields.