Information Age Education
   Issue Number 171
October, 2015   

This free Information Age Education Newsletter is edited by Dave Moursund and Bob Sylwester, and produced by Ken Loge. The newsletter is one component of the Information Age Education (IAE) publications.

All back issues of the newsletter and subscription information are available online. In addition, six free books based on the newsletters are available: Validity and Credibility of Information; Education for Students’ Futures; Understanding and Mastering Complexity; Consciousness and Morality: Recent Research Developments; Creating an Appropriate 21st Century Education; and Common Core State Standards for Education in America.

This is the first of two IAE Newsletters focusing on women in the STEM areas.

Women and the STEM Disciplines of Study and Work

David Moursund
Emeritus Professor of Education
University of Oregon

"Nothing can be more absurd than the practice that prevails in our country of men and women not following the same pursuits with all their strengths and with one mind, for thus, the state instead of being whole is reduced to half." (Plato; Classical Greek philosopher, mathematician, writer of philosophical dialogues, and founder of the Academy in Athens, the first institution of higher learning in the western world; 428/427 BC–348/347 BC.)


As the quote given above suggests, the education of women and the occupations open to them have long been a controversial issue. Even today, some parts of the world give preference to men in terms of educational opportunities. The Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) disciplines of study and employment opportunities provide a different but closely related problem. These problems vary from country to country. However, this IAE Newsletter focuses just on the United States.

Much of the information in this newsletter comes from a recently updated and expanded IAE-pedia document, Women in STEM (Moursund, 2015).

Currently in the U.S., women are under-represented in the STEM professions. Many people view this situation as being due to a type of discrimination against women. It is common to point to the potential of women to help meet the ever-growing need for well-educated people (workers and users) in the STEM areas. For these and other reasons, currently there are a number of organization and governmental programs designed to help increase the number of women going into the STEM areas of study and work.

A Historical Perspective

Think back 200,000 years ago when anatomically modern Homo sapiens first came on the scene. People lived as hunter-gatherers. The average life span was probably in the range of 20 to 25 years, and women produced as many babies as the time and their bodies allowed.

Homo sapiens survived and eventually prospered through cooperation, the development of tools, and through a division of labor. Very roughly speaking, women focused on having and rearing babies, and providing a “home” environment suitable to these endeavors. Men focused on hunting and fighting types of activities. Both women and men were gatherers. Groups (clans, tribes) of people developed social structures that were suited to their hunter-gatherer, environmental, and survival needs.

About 12,000 years ago agriculture began to develop and spread. Both hunting and gathering initially remained quite important. But, raising and harvesting crops gradually replaced gathering, and hunting was gradually replaced as various farm animals were domesticated. The major change in division of work between women and men was that men switched from being hunters to being farmers, and women switched from a combination of child rearing and gathering to a combination of child rearing and farm work.

The Industrial Revolution began about 250 years ago. The division of labor pattern that gradually developed was one of women continuing to “make” the home and raise children, while men became “breadwinners” through working in factories and through other jobs outside the home. In the U.S., it wasn’t until World War II, 1941-1945, that large numbers of women began to work in industrial age types of factory jobs. During that war, women demonstrated they could be quite capable breadwinners.

Still more recently, our educational system became much more open to and supportive of women. Now, in the U.S. women far outnumber men in undergraduate college enrollment. Quoting from The Condition of Women (IES, May, 2015):

In fall 2013, female students made up 56 percent of total undergraduate enrollment at 9.8 million and male students made up 44 percent at 7.7 million. Enrollment for both groups increased between 1990 and 2013, but most of the increases occurred between 2000 and 2010, when female enrollment increased by 39 percent and male enrollment increased by 36 percent.… Between 2013 and 2024, female enrollment is projected to increase by 15 percent (from 9.8 million to 11.3 million students), and male enrollment is projected to increase by 9 percent (from 7.7 million to 8.3 million students).

This type of data suggests that in our current educational system, women are more academically successful than men. There have been many research studies attempting to compare women and men in the STEM areas of study. My 10/2/2015 Google search of the expression comparing women and men in the STEM fields of study produced about 47 million results. My search on the expression gender gap in STEM fields produced about 124,000 results.

A PBS News Hour Report

Denise Cummings' PBS News Hour presentation provides a good introduction to women in STEM (Cummings, 4/17/2015). Quoting Cummings:

There are two universally accepted “truths” about women and STEM careers (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). The first is that men outnumber women in these fields, and the second is that women are socialized to avoid STEM as career choices, because society considers them “unfeminine.”
These beliefs have spawned a national effort on the part of the National Science Foundation to attract girls and young women into STEM. The preferred strategy is to attract females by “unbrainwashing them” into accepting STEM careers as appropriate for women.
On closer inspection, it turns out that these “truths” are nothing more than assumptions, and that these assumptions are inconsistent with the facts. [Bold added for emphasis.]

Cummings then goes on to briefly explore some of the major issues about women and STEM. The article contains sections focusing on:
  1. Men do not outnumber women in all STEM fields, but they do so in some.

  2. Women and men are equally capable of doing STEM work.

  3. Sex-linked interest preferences are not mere artifacts of socialization. Both women and men are a product of nature and nurture. Research suggests we should not blame all of the STEM education and employment differences just on the nurture of girls.

  4. Different preferences don’t mean women’s are less important.
In summary, Cummings states:

Women are clearly capable of doing well in STEM fields traditionally dominated by men, and they should not be hindered, bullied, or shamed for pursuing careers in such fields. But we [women] also should not be ashamed if our interests differ from men’s. If we find certain careers more intrinsically rewarding than men do, that does not mean we have been brainwashed by society or herded into menial fields of labor. Instead, we should demand that greater intrinsic and monetary compensation be awarded to the work we like and want to do.

Sex Differences in Learning and Doing Math

The topic of women and math is frequently raised in discussing gender equity. The basic question is whether the seeming differences between women and men in math are due to nature (genetic/innate) or due to nurture.

In recent years, there have been a number of studies looking for innate math-related differences and similarities between girls and boys. The article, Sex, Math and Scientific Achievement provides a nice, readable summary of some of the findings up to 2007 (Halpern, et al., December, 2007). The following quoted material captures some of the findings from the article:

Because grades and overall test scores depend on many factors, psychologists have turned to assessing better-defined cognitive skills to understand these sex differences. Preschool children seem to start out more or less even, because girls and boys, on average, perform equally well in early cognitive skills that relate to quantitative thinking and knowledge of objects in the surrounding environment.

Around the time school begins, however, the sexes start to diverge. By the end of grade school and beyond, females perform better on most assessments of verbal abilities. In a 1995 review of the vast literature on writing skills, University of Chicago researchers Larry Hedges (now at Northwestern University) and Amy Nowell put it this way: “The large sex differences in writing … are alarming. The data imply that males are, on average, at a rather profound disadvantage in the performance of this basic skill.” There is also a female advantage in memory of faces and in episodic memory—memory for events that are personally experienced and are recalled along with information about each event’s time and place.

There is another type of ability, however, in which boys have the upper hand, a skill set referred to as visuospatial: an ability to mentally navigate and model movement of objects in three dimensions. Between the ages of four and five, boys are measurably better at solving mazes on standardized tests. Another manifestation of visuospatial skill in which boys excel involves “mental rotation,” holding a three-dimensional object in memory while simultaneously transforming it. As might be expected, these capabilities also give boys an edge in solving math problems that rely on creating a mental image.

Gender and Racial Inequalities in STEM

A 2015 report from U.S. News & Raytheon provides data on gender and racial inequalities in the STEM areas (U.S. News & Raytheon, 6/29/2015). Quoting from this article:

Multi-million dollar initiatives by both the public and the private sectors have failed to close gender and racial gaps in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields, according to the second-annual U.S. News/Raytheon STEM Index, unveiled today at

The STEM Index, developed exclusively by U.S. News & World Report with support from Raytheon, provides a national snapshot of STEM jobs and education. The index measures key indicators of economic- and education-related STEM activity in the United States since the year 2000.

The 2015 STEM Index shows that while employment and degrees granted in STEM fields have improved since 2000, gaps between men and women and between whites and minorities in STEM remain deeply entrenched.

Mathematics remains the Achilles’ heel of STEM fields: Across all demographic groups, interest in mathematics has declined since 2000.

The article provides data on educational attainments of women and men in the STEM areas. Quoting again from the article:

High school girls are much less interested in pursuing engineering and technology than their male peers. In 2014, only 3 percent of high school females reported an interest in engineering, compared to 31 percent of males. In the same year, just 2 percent of girls reported an interest in technology, while 15 percent of boys expressed an interest in the field.

  • In 2014, only 6 percent of associate degrees and 13 percent of bachelor’s degrees granted to females were in a STEM field. By contrast, 20 percent of associate degrees and 28 percent of bachelor’s degrees granted to males were in STEM fields.

  • At the graduate level, in 2014 only 10 percent of graduate degrees earned by females were in STEM fields. In the same year, 24 percent of graduate degrees granted to males were STEM degrees.

Organizations Dedicated to Increasing Women in STEM

My 10/3/2015 Google search of the expression organizations for women in stem produced about 38 million results. For some lists of such organizations see 12 STEM Resources for Young Women (Nunziata, 8/6/2014) and Girls Math and Technology Program (University of Nevada, Reno, n.d.). Six organizations are listed below with very brief descriptions.

American Association of University Women (AAUW)

The American Association of University Women (AAUW): Breaking through barriers for women and girls. The mission is "Advancing equity for women and girls through advocacy, education, philanthropy, and research." See Opening Opportunities for Girls in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM).

Association for Women in Science (AWIS)

Association for Women in Science (AWIS). “The Association for Women in Science is dedicated to achieving equality and full participation for women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.”

Expanding Your Horizons Network (EYHN)

Expanding Your Horizons Network (EYHN). “EYHN is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization dedicated to providing gateway STEM experiences to middle and high school girls that spark interest in STEM activities and careers.”

National Girls Collaborative Project (NGCP)

National Girls Collaboration Project. “The vision of the NGCP is to bring together organizations throughout the United States that are committed to informing and encouraging girls to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).”

Society of Women Engineers (SWE)

The Society of Women Engineers
“…is a not-for-profit educational and service organization that empowers women to succeed and advance in the field of engineering, and to be recognized for their life-changing contributions as engineers and leaders.”

Women in Technology (WIT)

Women in Technology. “As the premier professional association for women in the technology industry, we understand the unique challenges you face. No matter where you are in your professional development, or what technology-related field you're in, our community offers a broad range of support, programs and resources to advance women in technology from the classroom to the boardroom.”

Women in Technology (WIT) Education Foundation

Women in Technology Education Foundation (WIT Education Foundation)

“…is a nonprofit organization that empowers women and girls to change the world by providing scholarships and financial support to programs that foster interest in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) related careers.”

Final Thoughts

STEM jobs tend to pay well, and there tend to be a high number of job openings in the STEM areas (Koebel, 4/18/2015). Koebel’s article indicates that the average wage for all STEM occupations is $85,570, nearly double the average for all occupations ($47,230).

Research supports the contention that women are as capable in the STEM areas as are men. Thus, the under-representation of women in undergraduate and graduate programs of study can be attributed to their upbringing (nurture) and interests. Research also suggests that educational programs to encourage more women to pursue a STEM education and careers should start in the early grades of elementary school.

References and Resources

Cummings, D. (4/17/2015). Why the STEM gender gap is overblown. PBS News Hour. Retrieved 10/2/2015 from

Halpern, D.F., Benbow, C.P., Geary, D.C., Gur, R.C., Hyde, J.S., & Gernsbacher, M.A. (December, 2007). Sex, math and scientific achievement. Scientific American. Retrieved 10/3/2015 from

IES (May, 2015), The condition of women. Institute of Education Sciences. Retrieved 10/3/2015 from

Koebel, S. (4/18/2015). Seven things to know if you’re thinking about a STEM career. U.S. Department of Labor. Retrieved 10/3/2015 from

Moursund, D. (2015), Women and ICT. IAE-pedia. Retrieved 10/2/2015 from

Nunziata (8/6/2014). 12 STEM resources for young women. Information Week. Retrieved 10/3/2015 from

University of Nevada, Reno (n.d.). Girls math and technology program. Retrieved 10/3/2015from

U.S. News & Raytheon. (June 29, 2015). The U.S. News/Raytheon STEM Index shows gender and racial gaps widening in STEM fields. Retrieved 10/3/2015 from


David Moursund is an Emeritus Professor of Education at the University of Oregon, and coeditor of the IAE Newsletter. His professional career includes founding the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) in 1979, serving as ISTE’s executive officer for 19 years, and establishing ISTE’s flagship publication, Learning and Leading with Technology. He was the major professor or co-major professor for 82 doctoral students. He has presented hundreds of professional talks and workshops. He has authored or coauthored more than 60 academic books and hundreds of articles. Many of these books are available free online. See In 2007, Moursund founded Information Age Education (IAE). IAE provides free online educational materials via its IAE-pedia, IAE Newsletter, IAE Blog, and books. See


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