STEM Fields: Aptitude or Gender as Predictors of Success?

By Grace Bennett

The male domination of the science, technology, engineering, and mathematic fields has become an increasingly apparent and hot button issue in recent years. As a result, a significant number of studies have been launched in an effort to determine the impact and legitimacy of the problem. One such study, The Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth, originated at Vanderbilt and Iowa State University and attempts to identify the professional progression of mathematically adept youths and the role that gender has played in their career development.

The research team, consisting of professors from both universities, initially identified two groups of children (referred to as cohort one and cohort two in the study) between the ages of twelve and fourteen, each of whom fell within the top percentile of mathematical reasoning for their age group (as judged by SAT-M scores). Twenty years later, when the children turned thirty-three, the researchers reported on their progress.

Not surprisingly, both groups experienced higher rates of success than the average student. Over 90% of participants had obtained a bachelors degree and more than 20% of them had earned a PhD as well. The average rates for the acquisition of these degrees are 23% and 1%, respectively. The group’s successes largely reflected their mathematical aptitude, as more than half of the participants received a postsecondary degree in either math or science.

In general, the researchers concluded that mathematical aptitude at age twelve proved a reliable predictor of later STEM success. One immediate caveat, however, was the noteworthy role that gender played in participant’s career path. While both genders earned degrees at roughly the same rates, a vast disparity existed in the fields pursued. Males were significantly more likely to receive degrees in STEM fields, whereas women more often gravitated towards social sciences, life sciences, or the humanities, despite demonstrated skill in mathematics. Differing preferences transcended academic settings and appear to have affected participant’s career paths as well. Men remained more inclined towards inorganic sciences and mathematical professions. In these fields, male participants outnumbered their female counterparts almost two-to-one. Female participants were slightly more likely to become medical doctors, as well as K-12 educators, writers, artists, and homemakers. The study also reported that the males commanded a higher median income, even when controlled for differences in occupation. It’s worth noting that, in addition to addressing questions of academic and career success, the study included a survey in order to ascertain a participant’s career satisfaction. Both genders reported similar levels of contentment, despite differences in career paths and incomes.

In highlighting the different progressions of children of similar abilities, the study presents the question: What factors contribute to gender-specific professional paths? Is it inherent differences that guide women to pursue different goals and professions than their male counter parts?

Perhaps women don’t experience the same satisfaction in STEM fields, or simply possess a natural affinity towards medical, legal, or educational professions. Given the growing number of hugely successful and fulfilled women entering STEM fields today, however, this explanation seems insufficient. Perhaps then, women are simply the unfortunate beneficiaries of societal pressures that encourage and direct even the best suited to pursue different, less male dominated career paths. We, as a society, have painted professions in a gendered light, and thus made success in these fields not merely a question of skill or effort, but of biology. Naturally, this presents a serious problem, not just for the women affected but for a society that’s sacrificing too many of it’s best and brightest.

The female participants in this study are clearly equally competent to the male partakers and, regardless of gender, represent the top tier of the American population in terms of mathematic ability. These are the people the United States needs working in STEM fields in order to encourage progress and ensure new discoveries and innovations. By sacrificing a disproportionate number of our most mathematically inclined, we risk obstructing achievement.

The study does not attempt to solve the problem of gender inequality or the peculiarity of male-dominated occupations. It does, however, make one point absolutely clear: the under-representation of women in scientific fields cannot be attributed to innate inabilities. Understanding where this disparity comes from, and combatting its effects, is a task that society would be senseless not to prioritize.

                                     Grace is a Sophomore in the college majoring in Government 

                                     Grace is a Sophomore in the college majoring in Government