Survey: Female students still lack confidence in math, science

Dive Brief:

  • More male students favor math and have more confidence in the subject matter than their female counterparts, according to a survey by the Society for Industrial Applied Mathematics
  • The results show 76% of male students describe their participation in math and science classes as “frequent and confident,” while only 58% of female students rated themselves that high. Meanwhile, 83% of male students said they planned to pursue STEM in college, compared to 69% of female students. 
  • “While there are not huge differences in male and female views on math and STEM, the survey shows there is still a marked gender difference when it comes to subject preferences and how students view their own strengths, as well as confidence levels in math class,” Michelle Montgomery, M3 Challenge program director at SIAM, said in a statement.

Dive Insight:

The survey confirms earlier findings showing females are less likely to pursue postsecondary education and careers in STEM.​ Jilana Bostona, a Ph.D student in cognitive development at New York University, and NYU associate professor of psychology Andrei Cimpian write that stereotypes around gender and intellect discourage girls from pursuing STEM fields and developing confidence in them. False portrayals of those working in STEM as “nerdy” or “geeky” and self-isolating can also contribute to STEM being an unattractive career option.

Perception is a problem that starts at a young age. Girls are twice as likely to think of mathematicians and scientists as men, which may explain why so few women enter these fields. Teachers can play a role in reversing this trend by dispelling these stereotypes. Teaching a growth mindset to both genders may also undo some of the preconceived notions that hold women back from the STEM workforce.

Sometimes, teachers can also dissuade students from entering STEM fields through their own biases. A study found teachers tended to give boys better math grades than girls when the teacher knew the test-taker was female. When the gender of the test-taker was unknown, however, girls were rated higher.

The loss of STEM confidence happens over time. In middle school, three quarters of girls still believe they are as good in STEM subjects as their male counterparts. That trend ends around high school, and by the time females are old enough to enter the workforce, only about one quarter enter STEM fields.

Mentorship can also help to reverse this. For example, Million Women Mentors has more than 1 million mentor relationships designed to bolster the number of girls entering STEM fields. The idea is that when girls see women in a field, they are more likely to get into that field themselves.

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