Issues STEMming from Gender Disparities


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Title IX is perhaps best known for increasing and protecting women’s participation in collegiate sports. In 2001, more than 150,000 women participated compared to 16,000 in 1966.

Surprisingly enough, the original statute made no explicit mention of athletics. In fact, Title IX was introduced for an entirely different reason: its sponsor was not accepted into medical school.

After receiving a bachelor’s degrees in zoology and chemistry, Patsy Mink, a Hawaii congressman, was rejected from every single medical school to which she applied. This was ostensibly based on her gender—at the time, women earned fewer than 5 percent of all medical degrees. Instead of taking a gap year and reapplying, as so many are oft to do nowadays, she decided to pursue law and graduated from the University of Chicago Law School three years later. After championing various political causes, Mink was elected to the House of Representatives, where she served for 12 years. Title IX, which prohibits gender discrimination in all federally funded educational institutions, was posthumously named the Patsy Mink Equal Opportunity in Education Act in her honor.

But how exactly has Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) education fared since Title IX passed in 1972? Although progress has been made, the United States still has a long way to go before reaching gender equity among students. Up until high school, girls and boys are evenly represented in STEM related subjects, such as biology and chemistry. In fact, girls outnumber boys in enrollment for AP science classes.

However, college and higher education show a different story. In 2009 and 2010, women made up less than 25 percent of participants in STEM programs nationally—21 percent at the secondary level and 24 percent at the postsecondary level. In comparison, fields like marketing and education have double or triple those rates. While STEM workers earn considerably more than their non-STEM counterparts, a gender gap still persists; women earn 84 cents for every dollar that a man earns in a STEM-related field. As employment in STEM fields like engineering or bioinformatics is projected to rise dramatically in the upcoming decades, disincentivizing millions of potential female workers will hinder our future economic productivity.

There is no simple solution for such a multifaceted problem. Some problems exist on a social and interpersonal spectrum. A report by the American Association of University Women showed that negative stereotypes – ideas like “girls are bad at math” – make a tangible difference in test performance. Additionally, girls are less likely than boys to interpret their academic successes in math and science classes as an indication that they will be successful in STEM-related fields. The report suggests that these problems can be solved in a variety of ways: by extolling the virtues of pursuing STEM-related fields, providing women with exposure to role models in these professions, and cultivating the idea that math and science skills can be improved over time, teachers and family members can counteract these tendencies.

Other problems occur on an institutional level. Various government initiatives have started to address the many issues that women face once they enter into STEM-related fields. Firstly, as women often find themselves balancing career interests and family care, they may need more flexible programs than men. In 2011, the National Science Foundation (NSF) announced their Career-Life Initiative, which gives grant recipients the chance to delay their initiatives or perform virtual peer-review in the face of childbirth or adoption. Secondly, given the continuous nature of research and clinical treatment, STEM careers tend to dissuade leave and re-entry. In response, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) recently initiated a program that allows for scientists to take time away from research in order to pursue family responsibilities.

Since the introduction of Title IX (and perhaps after being called out by Patsy Mink), medical schools have been working to fix this gender disparity as well . The American Association of Medical Colleges reported an increase in the number of women applying to medical school every year since the 1970’s. These numbers finally met parity as recently as 2011, when roughly equal numbers of women and men applied and graduated from medical school. Carolyn Herman, a Pre-Health Dean at Washington University, echoed this when she said “WashU applicants are no different from the rest of the national applicant pool in this regard.”

This trend correlates with a recent effort to cultivate greater diversity in medical schools—whether this is racial, ethnic, or gender-related. The Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) calls for medical schools to “assess [their] institutional climate and culture,” stating that diversity is tied to “collaboration, innovation, and…academic excellence.” Additionally, an increasing number of medical schools ask applicants how they would contribute to the diversity of the entering class, demonstrating their commitment to recruiting a variety of backgrounds and perspectives.

More research is necessary to ascertain how medical schools countered this trend—especially if other institutions plan to use medical schools as a model for gender diversity in STEM education. Although Title IX has helped women make great strides both on and off the field, it is clear that more work can and must be done.

Ashkay Shanker can be reached at

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