Does Calculus Block Women From Pursing STEM Degrees?

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Posted By Terri Williams on October 11, 2016 at 7:15 pm
Does Calculus Block Women From Pursing STEM Degrees?

Jessica Rannow thought she knew the score on calculus after her first college-level try at it. “I took calculus I as a high school student – I took it at a community college and made an A.”

That was in line with the rest of her high school experience. But after graduation, she enrolled in the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and that’s when her experience turned not-so-smooth. “The first time I actually had to study was in college, and I spent a lot of time with my TA, and at the end of the semester, I got a C (in calculus) and had an overall 3.0 GPA,” she says.

Rannow panicked – she perceived she was failing because she was accustomed to making outstanding grades. She got so desperate she considered changing her major. But Rannow was a member of the Society of Women Engineers in college, and that support group of peers and mentors to encourage her. “I learned that a 3.0 was excellent, and that men wait until their GPA drops so low that they get kicked out of the program,” she says.

Her feelings of failure aren’t unusual. Performance in calculus I, in fact, may be a barrier for women pursuing STEM degrees. According to a recent study by researchers at Colorado State University, female students are more likely than male students to switch from STEM majors after taking calculus I. These decisions often are not based on ability, but on confidence in the student’s ability to do well in subsequent classes. In actuality, many of the women who changed majors scored higher than the men who didn’t change majors.

Another study by researchers at Washington State University discovered that men tend to overestimate their math abilities, and even though they’re not as good as they might think, this confidence drives them to continue pursuing STEM degrees.

The persistent STEM gender gap

Unfortunately, Rannow’s persistence isn’t typical. Despite attempts to close it, the STEM gender gap remains alive and distressingly well. Granted, there has been progress. Dartmouth’s School of Engineering recently graduated more women than men. Holberton School of Software Engineering’s student body is 40 percent women. The school achieved this feat by using an automated admissions process to remove unconscious biases.

But as a general rule, women aren’t pursuing STEM degrees in large numbers. And this had led to a plethora of reports, studies, and surveys designed to identify the reason. Is it the classroom? Is it the instructors? Is it the work culture? Is it the student’s background? Yes, yes, yes, and yes. It’s all those – and more. There’s not one neatly packaged answer.

A recent survey revealed that 40 percent of female engineering students earning degrees either quit or never enter the field. On the heels of that revelation, another survey found that some women don’t choose STEM or business careers because they think it will result in a marriage penalty – that they’re less likely to get married and have kids by the age of 30 if they major in these particular areas.

GoodCall spoke with Dr. Jess Ellis, an assistant professor of mathematics in the College of Natural Sciences at Colorado State and a co-author of the CSU study, about the issue.

Why women underestimate their math abilities

Ellis believes several cultural factors contribute to this phenomena. “This generation has been raised in a culture that told them from a young age that boys and girls like different things and will grow up to be different things, and so it makes sense that women grow up to doubt abilities and interests of theirs that do not align with the cultural messages we were raised with.”

However, Ellis says she also sees an encouraging shift in how both genders are being raised.

Stopping the STEM pipeline leak

Ellis believes that it’s natural for some students to choose a major and then change it because they find a new passion or don’t like their original choice as much as they thought. “So, in my opinion, it doesn’t make sense to strive to prevent the ‘pipeline’ from leaking; instead, I want it to be leaking in a more equitable way – by gender, race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status,” she says.

How can more equitable leaking happen? “We need to understand the experiences of students who stay and of those who leave, with a special attention to the experiences of students coming from underrepresented populations,” Ellis says. “We need to also attend to how to encourage more students coming from traditionally underrepresented populations to enter the STEM pipeline.”

And, of course, it’s important that students don’t just enter the pipeline but make their way through it.

For her part, Rannow stuck with it, and she’s now a project manager at AmerisourceBergen Drug Co. – and she’s president of the Society of Women Engineers, the organization that helped her during college. “I would encourage other women to have confidence in themselves and have mentors – upperclassmen helped me put my experience in perspective, made suggestions regarding which professors to take, and provided invaluable advice and support.”

Terri Williams
Terri Williams graduated with a B.A. in English from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Her education, career, and business articles have been featured on Yahoo! Education, U.S. News & World Report, The Houston Chronicle, and in the print edition of USA Today Special Edition. Terri is also a contributing author to "A Practical Guide to Digital Journalism Ethics," a book published by the Center for Digital Ethics and Policy at Loyola University Chicago.

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