Postsecondary STEM has Important Gender Gaps: Why Is It So Different? | Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence
Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence

Postsecondary STEM has Important Gender Gaps: Why Is It So Different?

Kentucky’s K-12 data may show only small STEM gaps by gender, but postsecondary STEM degrees are another matter. At our public universities, female students are a majority of enrolled students and bachelor degree recipients, but a small minority of STEM degree recipients, and the drop-off is much worse for female students seeking associate degrees. Using data from the Council on Postsecondary Education’s data portal, here’s one way to see the problem.

Here’s another way to look at the same data:

  • 1% of associate degrees earned by women are in STEM fields, compared to 14% for men.
  • 10% of bachelor degrees earned by women are in STEM fields, compared to 30% for men.

Those are huge gaps, and they’re in fields that matter greatly for individual economic opportunity and statewide economic growth. Seeing them should work as a powerful summons to courageous conversations about how those programs can do better work recruiting, supporting, and graduating female students.

Here come a few thoughts for those discussions.

First, issues around implicit bias, cultural responsiveness, and the availability of female professors and mentors may be good starting points for the discussion. There are sure to be other challenges to identify and meet.

Second, the main focus should be on what happens in postsecondary institutions. K-12 may have a role to play, but schools at that level appear to be equipping female and male students with similar levels of science and mathematics strength, at least in the areas measured by our assessments. That offers a strong suggestion that important work needs to be done in our universities and in our community and technical colleges.

Third, we should do some careful thinking about where health degrees fit in this picture. Those are reported separately in the Council on Postsecondary Education’s data portal. In health fields, female students have robust leads on collecting both associate and bachelor degrees, and the gaps look smaller if STEM and health are reported together. Our postsecondary performance-based funding model also counts STEM and health degrees together as valued results. To what extent does that change our understanding of the scale of our gender-related STEM challenge? I don’t have a clear answer, but I raise the question for shared consideration

Finally, all work on this issue needs to tie into work to increase the number of degrees earned and the STEM share of those degrees. In Prichard Committee Top 20 ratings, Kentucky has never gotten above 38th among the 50 states in the percent of young adults with bachelor degrees, and we’ve never ranked above 40th in the share of bachelor degrees awarded in STEM topics. Here’s are our most recently published versions of those rankings, showing the trends from our 2008 to 2018 reporting.

The connections need to work both ways. It won’t work to stay with that tiny fraction of degrees being earned in STEM and just change female representation within that tiny fraction: we need more STEM degrees. And it won’t work to tackle STEM as though gender is not a factor: our failure to draw in female students and move them through to degree completion is a big component of of our overall STEM weakness in need of direct attention.

More for readers who love numbers
The table below shows all the counts that went into this analysis, among with the related calculations by race and economic status. The table uses 2018 because of an oddity in 2019 reporting for students with and without low incomes. In this detailed version, note that the STEM share of degrees shows worse gaps between female and male students than those between Black and White students, between Hispanic and White students, and between students with and without low incomes.