Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Is Confidence the Reason Women are the Minority in STEM Fields?

A recent study has found that women often fail to do as well in a corporate environment due to a lack of confidence in their own abilities. This ties in closely with the fact that there is a distinct gender gap in STEM fields as it has been found that women make up only 24 percent of STEM professions.

From this, a study looked into how male and female college students view their own abilities. There was found to be a gender gap in terms of confidence levels in the STEM fields and in particular computer science. This study, carried out by Piazza, created a social learning platform where students and teachers could ask questions (anonymously if they wanted) and answered by fellow students. Piazza analyzed two million questions by almost one million students from US and Canadian schools over four semesters. The confidence gap was defined as the percentage difference between the average number of questions answered by female and male students. The gap for computer sciences showed women answered 37 percent less than men and for the rest of the STEM subject’s women were 18 percent fewer.

The difference in levels was found to be biggest at the top computer science programs – females at Carnegie Mellon University answered 62 percent less than males whilst at Cornell, Stanford and Harvard there were 60 percent, 49 percent and 39 percent differences again in favor of the males. The gaps at slightly smaller institutions were a lot smaller and in the cases of Boston University and Caltech the females had higher percentages with three percent higher at Boston and 22 percent higher at Caltech.


This leads me to believe that the reason behind the disparity in confidence levels comes from the fact that STEM fields and in particular computer science are still boys clubs and this stems from college level. The top level courses themselves are still male dominated and by teachers as well as students. The top universities were found to have 14 percent female undergraduate degrees awarded in computer science.

The disparity means females are less likely to be able to find friends to help with work and mentoring as the males tend to group together. Male teachers as well are more likely to bond with male students as they will have also worked or studied in a male dominated environment. Studies have also shown that males are also more likely to receive more positive classroom attention from teachers than females.  It is similar in other courses such as business where it is found at Harvard Business School between 2006 and 2007 a third of the junior female faculty left. Trends like this show that females have less female mentoring so often feel excluded and intimidated. Another study shows that at Carnegie 53 percent of male college freshmen rated themselves as highly prepared for their computer science exams whilst zero percent of females said the same. However at the end of the year 86 percent of the females interviewed received A or B grades which shows the extreme difference in confidence levels despite actually having no need to be worried.  

From this evidence it is not surprising that females feel less confident to firstly go into these professions or courses where they are the minority and secondly when there, they are less likely to want to speak up. If there is less of a social stigma surrounding these STEM fields being for men then maybe there would be a positive change in more women taking up STEM professions and succeeding. 


About the Author: Harry Kempe, a marketing intern at IIR USA, who works on various aspects of the industry including social media, marketing analysis and media. He is a recent graduate of Newcastle University who previously worked for EMAP Ltd. and WGSN as a marketing assistant on events such as the World Architecture Festival, World Retail Congress and Global Fashion Awards. He can be reached at hkempe@IIRUSA.com.

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