Miss STEM: The Truth About the Gender Gap


I recently read an article about how the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) gender gap is “overblown”—and it left me infuriated. Here are my responses to a few choice quotes, to illustrate my point:

“Men earn more because they believe they are worth more—and women agree.” 

(Well, maybe they earn more because men traditionally earn more because, sexism. And just because some women agree doesn’t justify it at all.)

“Men do not outnumber women in all STEM fields.” 

(Okay, but is it men or women who usually end up recognized on top of their STEM field?)

I have personally experienced the STEM gender gap multiple times, and it’s definitely not overblown. I love to participate in math competitions—I’ve been to some at MIT and Iowa and all around Texas—and more often than not, I find myself in a room in which the vast majority are boys.

I remember participating in a competition called MathCounts back in middle school. Each school sends a team of four to the competition; whenever the Hockaday team arrived, we would always hear, “Wow! An all-girls team? You’re the first I’ve seen today!” And the fact that we were actually good and competent impressed those people even more. In all three years of my being on the team, we were one of the ten best teams in Texas and the only all-girls team at that.

There’s also that idea that boys’ brains are wired for subjects like math and science, while girls’ brains are wired for softer, more “creative” subjects. Yes, boys tend to lean towards STEM, but that’s not the result of some innate ability only found in our Y-chromosome friends.

Elizabeth Spelke, a professor of psychology at Harvard, conducted a study measuring basic spatial, quantitative and numerical abilities in children between five months and seven years old. Spelke concluded that she could not find any gender differences.

According to Spelke, the differences began to emerge during adolescence. For the past three decades, boys have tended to outscore girls on the math section of the SAT by about 30 points.

Adolescence is also a time where the socialization of teens has been pretty fully established.

So, what does this mean? It means that any gender differences pertaining to the STEM field exist as a result of popular beliefs and stereotypes that say boys are just better at math and science. Rather, more boys are encouraged to pursue math and science. There’s a difference.

Case in point: For the past three years, I have competed in the American Regions Math League competition as a member of the Texas team. Forty-five students from each state are invited to be on their state’s team, recruited on the basis of previous contest rankings and test scores. This year, seven out of the 45 students on the Texas team were girls. That’s a dismal 15.6 percent.

It’s not that I have no hope for us as a society: in fact, it’s just the opposite. Women in STEM are steadily gaining the spotlight. Last year, a woman won the Fields Medal for the first time, and the STEM gender gap is becoming a more widely discussed subject. I just hope people know that this gender gap is neither overblown nor imagined. It’s very much real (and it’s also ridiculous).

Commentaries are the expressed opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect that of The Fourcast staff, its adviser or any member of the Hockaday community.