The amount of perceived gender bias present within a major is the primary deciding factor for women in selecting their major, according to a new study.
A 2017 study from the American Educational Research Fund, titled “Gender Equity in College Majors: Looking Beyond the STEM/Non-STEM Dichotomy for Answers Regarding Female Participation,” is one of the first extensive attempts to study the issue of gender disparities within college majors outside of a STEM versus non-STEM framework.
Instead, the study looked at students’ perceptions of the characteristics of college majors. This approach was taken because there can be variance in which majors are considered STEM. In addition, some majors are interdisciplinary and students can have more than one major. It also helped in examining the gender disparities within different STEM majors.
The researchers administered a survey to 330 undergraduate students asking them to rank 20 majors on how closely they perceived them being related to math, related to science, gender-biased, helpful to society, high-paying or creative.
STEM majors ranked highly on the math-oriented scale, the science-oriented scale or on both. Engineering and physical sciences ranked highly in both math and science orientation, while other majors like computer science, architecture and mathematics ranked higher in math than science.
The researchers found there was less perceived gender bias in STEM fields that had higher science ratings than math ratings, like biology or health and clinical sciences. These majors also ranked highly in their helpfulness to society.
UNC psychology professor Beth Kurtz-Costes said in an email that men tend to be less attracted to service professions than women, which likely accounts for some of the gender bias disparities between STEM majors perceived as more or less helpful.
Engineering and computer science had the highest ratings of perceived gender bias, while education and social work had some of the lowest. Majors outside of STEM that also scored high on gender bias were political science and agriculture.
Senior Shilpa Kancharla entered UNC as a biology major to pursue her dream of becoming a neurosurgeon. After taking an introductory physics course her first year, she realized she enjoyed working with data and changed her major to applied mathematics. She now hopes to enter the field of space technology.
Kancharla’s experience in going from a more science-oriented major within STEM to a more math-oriented one mirrors the results from the study.
“I found that in my biology classes, there was an equal split between men and women. I felt that it was equal to the point that I didn't notice a gender disparity to be honest,” she said in an email.
Kancharla said she didn't really notice much of a numbers disparity in her math classes either. However, she experienced greater gender bias in the math-oriented classes. She said she often felt men in these classes condescended to her and devalued her achievements due to her gender.
Kurtz-Costes also stressed the importance of mentors in STEM fields. She said among students doing doctoral studies, having a gender-balanced faculty positively predicts female students' feelings of efficacy, perceptions of sensitivity in the department to work and life balance and career commitment.
“Interestingly, the gender of the doctoral adviser doesn't matter — women feel equally supported by male mentors as by female mentors," she said. "But the gender makeup of the faculty seems to influence the department climate, creating a more welcoming environment for female students when women are visibly in positions of leadership.”
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