What Does the Gender Gap in Education Look Like?

What Does the Gender Gap in Education Look Like?

usa gender gapThere is a gender gap in education, and it has a multitude of consequences for our society as well as our position in the international marketplace. Through every step of education, from kindergarten through college, there are barriers preventing women from pursuing studies in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

In the United States, less than 25% of STEM jobs are held by women, and only one in seven engineers are women. This is despite the fact that over half of our workforce are women. Current graduation rates show that almost 60% of college graduates are female. However, until recently, little has been done to encourage female students to pursue career paths in STEM fields.

We currently have over 3 million STEM jobs unfilled. This trend will continue since it is anticipated that over the next ten years, jobs requiring STEM skills will outpace all others. The U.S. lags behind many other countries in terms of educating scientists and engineers. Women in STEM careers will be crucial for the United States to stay competitive in the global market.

A 1980 article published by psychology researchers at Johns Hopkins University suggested that the gender gap in education might exist because males have superior mathematical abilities. The ensuing debate has raged on ever since, with proponents of change insisting that there is nothing natural about the performance gap seen between boys and girls. There are, in fact, cultural and structural issues at play which hinder females’ growth in STEM fields.

Gender bias begins at an early age and can be exhibited in seemingly innocuous behaviors such as the toys we give to children. Oftentimes, the toys that we promote to boys are different than those commonly promoted for girls. These actions make subtle, but consistent inferences to the type of activities that we expect boys and girls to enjoy, and children pick up on the messages. Studies have found that students who played with and enjoyed toys and games focused on STEM notions as early as kindergarten were more likely to pursue and enjoy STEM education. Unfortunately, many of these games like construction sets and motorized cars have traditionally been marketed solely to boys while girls are offered dolls and dress-up clothing.

Subtle gender-biased messages are continued throughout a child’s lifetime, and by the time females reach college age, many of them are discouraged from entering into STEM majors. Part of the reasoning behind this may lie in the fact that jobs in science and engineering are often seen as not being family-friendly. Women, more often than men, tend to make it more of a priority to find a job that allows them to juggle work and family together.

While much attention has been brought to the issue of women lacking in STEM, there is another gender gap being seen in education that is not being widely recognized: males are falling behind females in literacy. By the time the average boy hits fourth grade, they are a full two years behind the average girl in both reading and writing skills. Research has begun to explore some of the reasons that this gap in English skills exists, and they include societal and cultural issues, curriculum, teaching styles and technology.