Despite progress in some areas, many key STEM areas are still struggling to achieve gender parity. While the number of women studying biology, chemistry and mathematics has increased in recent years, progress has been slower in the fields of engineering, physics and computer science, according to a recent study published in Psychological Bulletin.
The trend for more boys than girls to gravitate towards STEM subjects has been widely observed for some time, with some academics attributing the skills gap to individual preferences and abilities. However, according to the authors of this study, a masculine culture surrounding these subjects may be the real reason the gender gap continues to endure.
Researchers Sapna Cheryan, Lily Jiang and Sianna Ziegler from the University of Washington and Amanda Montoya from Ohio State University found in their study that many STEM environments foster negative stereotypes and perceived bias' that are incompatible with the way women see themselves, while offering few role models for young girls to aspire to.
In order to tighten the gender gap, educators need to develop a more inviting culture in which girls can see themselves reflected in the subjects they study, rather than being presented with only the stereotypical masculine images of the computer scientist, engineer or physicist.
When Cheryan took a mandatory computer class at high school in the 1990s, she was warned that the course was extremely difficult and that the only students who were successful were 'gamers' who already coded for fun.
"We already had strong stereotypes of computer scientists being those boys - I guess you'd now call them hackers - the stereotype that they like science fiction and are a little socially awkward" she explains. "There was nothing that made us girls feel like we were welcome. Many of us got As in the class, but many of the girls said they didn't feel like there was a place for us in that field."
On returning for her twenty-year high school reunion two decades later, Cheryan noticed that of the graduates of that class, about half of the men now worked in computer science, but only one of the women did.
"We're still using science" she says, "we're just not doing it in the fields that are the most lucrative and high status. But if you can be a doctor, you can be a computer scientist."
Tracey Welson-Rossman, founder of Pennsylvania-based nonprofit TechGirlz, agreed that the STEM environment would benefit from being more tailored to girls' interests.
"The anecdotal actually does match up to what research is showing" she explains. "One: there's not a lot of classes. Two: It's not interesting to the girls, the way it's being taught. We hear this again and again - that it's boring, that they're the only girls in the class."
The Psychological Bulletin study suggests that factors such as pop culture jokes and classroom decorations can have an impact on the kind of students who are more likely to take an interest in a particular course. When high-school classrooms were decorated with Star Trek posters and video games - or not decorated at all, girls were less interested than boys in taking the course. When posters of art and nature were put in place of what the study describes as 'geeky' decor, girls' interest came closer to matching their male counterparts. By contrast, boys' interest was not found to be negatively impacted either way by the classroom environment.
Cheryan acknlowledges that 'geek culture' has come a long way in recent years and is far from a male-only domain. But balancing traditionally masculine and feminine references can help to narrow the gender gap and promote a more inclusive environment.
"It's not that every man and every woman can relate to the sterotype" she says. "And it's not that the stereotype is bad. There are just more women who think 'It's just not me, and it doesn't reflect my values and my interests'. We need to broaden the image of the field and make it more accessible."
According to research by TechGirlz, female students tend to prefer learning about technology to solve real-world problems, rather than more general, theory-based studies. The organisation runs free workshops for middle-school age girls, demonstrating how technology can be applied to almost every profession. After each session, around 80% per cent of attendees claim to be more open to pursuing a career in technology.
One notable success story is the computer science department of the University of Washington, which has taken active steps to foster a more gender-inclusive environment over the past decade. In 2013, 29 per cent of their Computer Science degrees were awarded to women, almost twice the national average.
"We believe that if we keep presenting these subjects the way they're currently being presented in schools, it's just not going to reflect how girls want to learn. How do we get them interested from the get-go, and how are we retaining that interest?" asks Welson-Rossman. "We want to ignite a love of technology in these middle school girls."
Do STEM subjects still have a gender problem? How do you think more women can be attracted to engineering and computer science? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.