Why do few women major in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM)?  Brookings reports that a new study, published in the June issue of Science, suggests that STEM’s lack of diversity is related to unique structural and cultural barriers that women and people of color face, both within society and within STEM. The researchers examined gender and racial imbalances among college majors in the fields of physics, engineering, and computer science (PECS). The findings were based on data collected from U.S. high school students who were in the 9th grade in 2009-2010 and tracked them through college. 

The study found that male college students, despite achievement levels, were a lot more likely to be in math-based majors than women. While women were less likely to major in these disciplines, those who did tended to achieve high performance. Among the PECS majors with the poorest STEM scores in high school, the male-to-female ratio was 10-to-1, compared to 2-to-1 for those with the highest performance. 

The research also suggests that racial barriers play a role in the number of women of color in these fields. White and Asian women were much more likely to major in PECS than Black, Latina and Indigenous women. However, Black and Latina women who did major in these fields and who expressed interest in them in high school performed just as well as white and Asian women.

“These trends make clear that the labor market demand for undergraduates with computer science and engineering degrees could be met by women, as many women who are highly performing in STEM are not choosing these fields despite many low-STEM-performing men choosing them,” writes one of the researchers, Joseph Cimpian, an associate professor of economics and policy at New York University, in BROOKINGS. “In other words, not only could these high-demand areas meet that demand with STEM-competent people, but they could improve the gender diversity of the fields in the process.”

In trying to understand why gender and racial imbalances exist in STEM majors, the research suggests educators focus on the social and cultural barriers that women and students of color face. It also suggests that exposing girls and students of color to STEM early can increase diversity.