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Complex Reasons Spur Women to Change STEM Majors, New Georgetown Study Finds

October 11, 2017 – The triple threat of low grades, gender composition of a major and gender stereotypes are what compel undergraduate women to switch from a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) major to another field, according to a new Georgetown study.

Two Georgetown professors and a consultant found that women are not deterred by any of these threats individually – it takes all three to effect the change.

The study’s authors are McCourt School of Public Policy professor Adriana D. Kugler; Catherine H. Tinsley, the Raffini Family Professor of Management at the McDonough School of Business and academic director of the Georgetown University Women’s Leadership Institute; and Olga Ukhaneva, managing consultant at Navigant.

Recently published in a National Bureau of Economic Research working paper titled "Choice of Majors: Are Women Really Different from Men?" the study provides a more complex view than previous research suggesting women are more likely than men to be deterred by poor grades or the lack of female STEM faculty to provide mentorship.

The study also found little support for the idea that worse high school preparation could account for fewer female STEM majors.

Changing Majors

Adriana Kugler with American flag“We actually found little evidence that faculty role models and previous preparation are important factors for either men or women, so that increasing female faculty in male-dominated STEM fields may not help,” Kugler says, “nor will additional preparation prior to coming to college.”

And although grades influence major decisions, Kugler points out that “contrary to the stereotype that women overreact to low grades, we find that women are as resilient as men in sticking with demanding fields.”

“Grades are an important signal to students about their performance in a field and whether or not they might be successful in the future," Tinsley explains. “All students are more likely to switch to a different major when they believe switching can improve their grade point average.”

Catherine Tinsley“However, females are no more responsive to poor grades in a major than men. Rather, both men and women respond similarly,” she adds. “Indeed, there are also no differences in how men and women respond to poor grades in male-dominated majors in general, such as economics. But with male-dominated STEM fields, there is something different going on.”

When women get low grades, are in male-dominated fields and these fields are also in STEM, the study finds that women switch out those male-dominated STEM majors more readily than men do.

More STEM Women

The study analyzed a large private university’s data on students from 2009-2016, broken down semester-by-semester to track their classes, changes in grades and majors and class and faculty gender composition for each course.

The researchers were surprised to find that women were more involved in STEM majors than previously thought.

“While our study confirmed that some STEM majors, such as physics and computer science, are male-dominated, we also found an increasing number of women in biology-related STEM majors, including environmental biology, health studies and neurobiology,” Ukhaneva says.

Unintended Consequences

The perception that STEM fields are all dominated by men might be creating a signal to women that they are less likely to fit into a STEM major and less likely to succeed in the field, Kugler says.

The study speculates that government and organizational programs meant to drive women into STEM-related fields may be backfiring.

“Initiatives designed to overcome the masculine STEM stereotype might send subtle signals to women that lead them to underestimate their success and increase their likelihood of switching out in response to low grades, relative to men,” the study states.

Complex Signals

“If female students believe that men are inherently a better fit for STEM majors, and those female students also see their numerical minority status, they are more likely to perceive their low grades as confirmation about their unfitness for their male-dominated STEM major,” Kugler explains.

“Thus, publicizing more the fact that many STEM fields are already female dominated or neutral could be helpful to change the perception that women may have lower chances of success in STEM,” Tinsley adds. “Based on the results of this study, it might be more useful for policymakers to move away from highlighting the lack of women in STEM fields and instead focus on examples of women who overcame the stereotype bias and succeeded in STEM fields.”

“This study gets us a little closer to understanding the dynamic complex signals that lead to decisions about a major field of study, by showing that young women will stay in STEM majors if they aren’t deterred by a triple signal of lack of fit,” Kugler explains. “Understanding why women and men graduate with different majors is critical for understanding their future occupational opportunities and, ultimately, the gender wage gap.”