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Opportunities to Learn and Decisions to Study Science, Mathematics, and Engineering
Achievement and Accomplishments

Opportunities to Learn and Decisions to Study Science, Mathematics, and EngineeringUp arrow

Course-taking in Elementary/Secondary Education

A discrepancy in course-taking between males and females who intend to go to college begins following the geometry course. Although 93 percent of both college-bound females and males reported taking a geometry course, trigonometry was taken by 56 percent of the males and 52 percent of females. Calculus was taken by 23 percent of the males but only 18 percent of the females.
There are overall similarities in high school coursework and grades for males and females taking the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT). However, a larger proportion of males took intensive concentrations of coursework: 15 percent of males took more than 4 years of mathematics compared with 11 percent of females.

Attitudes Toward Science and Mathematics

The most striking differences between girls and boys during elementary and secondary school are in attitudes toward science and mathematics. Even with similar exposure to courses and similar achievement levels, girls are less confident of their ability and less interested in science and engineering careers. High school seniors asked why they decided not to take certain courses in their senior year responded that they did not like mathematics (40 percent of females and 27 percent of males) or did not like science (35 percent of females and 22 percent of males).

Influences of Counselors and Parents

Higher percentages of females than males reported having been advised not to take senior mathematics (34 percent of females, 26 percent of males) or science (32 percent of females, 26 percent of males). In addition, in 1990, there was a 16 percentage point difference between male and female 10th grade students who reported ever talking to their parents about science and technology issues (54 percent of males, 38 percent of females).

Career Expectations

In 1990, only 6 percent of public high school seniors overall reported that they expected to pursue a career in science, mathematics, or engineering, with males more than three times as likely to choose a career in these fields (10 percent compared with 3 percent).

Higher Education Role Models

Faculty teaching undergraduates were overwhelmingly male in six science and engineering disciplines examined in a study of undergraduate education: civil, mechanical, and electrical engineering, and sociology, geology, and physics. Sociology had the highest proportion of women (30 percent) and mechanical engineering the lowest (4 percent).

Choices to Leave Science, Engineering, and Mathematics

Studies of why women and men leave science, mathematics, and engineering at the undergraduate level identify similar reasons, although the relative importance of particular factors varies by gender. For women the most important issue was the choice of field (women believed their reasons for choosing the field were inappropriate) while for men the top issue dealt with the educational environment (perceptions of poor teaching). Men more often chose science, mathematics, and engineering majors out of intrinsic interest or for pragmatic reasons; women showed concern that their education, career goals, and personal priorities fit together.

Graduate Education

In 1992, 35 percent of graduate students enrolled in science and engineering fields were women, up from less than 31 percent in 1981. In science fields, women comprised 43 percent of the total number of graduate students; in engineering, about 15 percent. Within science fields, women were a substantial majority of graduate enrollments in psychology (over two-thirds) and more than half the total in biometry/epidemiology, genetics, nutrition, and several social science fields (anthropology, linguistics, and sociology).

Achievement and AccomplishmentsUp arrow

Elementary/Secondary Education

Since 1973, there has not been a gap in the mathematics proficiency scores of boys and girls at ages 9 and 13, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress tests. Since 1986, a slight gap between the scores of 17-year-old boys and girls has virtually disappeared.
In science proficiency, the 1990 average score of 9-year-old girls and boys was virtually the same. A gap between girls' and boys' scores appears at age 13 and becomes larger by age 17; these gaps have persisted since the 1970's and are found primarily at the highest levels of science proficiency.

Transition to Higher Education

On the mathematics component of the SAT, scores for both sexes have increased since 1983. Nevertheless, in 1993, females continued to score considerably below males in mathematics, although the gap is narrowing slightly. Females' scores increased 12 points to 457 in 1993, while males' scores increased 9 points to 502.

Undergraduate Education Grades

Women tend to graduate from college with higher grades than men, regardless of their major field of study. Fifty-nine percent of women compared with 47 percent of men receiving bachelor's degrees in 1991 had a grade point average of B or better. The pattern of higher grades for women prevailed in science and engineering as well; in engineering, for example, 63 percent of women compared with 49 percent of men had a grade point average of B or better.

Bachelor's Degrees

Women earned a smaller proportion of total science and engineering degrees (44 percent in 1991) than they did non-science and engineering degrees (54 percent). Women have earned the majority of degrees in all fields combined since 1982.
For science as a whole (excluding engineering), women earned 50 percent of the bachelor's degrees in 1991. Within the sciences, the field with the highest share of bachelor's degrees awarded to women was psychology (73 percent) Women also earned more than half the baccalaureates in biological sciences (51 percent).
Engineering continued to be one of the least popular fields for women; in 1991, they earned 15 percent of all baccalaureates in engineering.

Master's Degrees

Women have earned more than half of the master's degrees in non-science and engineering fields since 1975. Both the number and the proportion of women earning master's degrees in science and engineering fields have risen steadily, increasing in the last 10 years to 36 percent of the total. By 1991, women had increased their share of master's degrees in science fields to 45 percent, up from 37 percent a decade earlier. Women remained underrepresented in engineering, although the percentage of master's degrees earned by women increased from 8 to 14 percent.


Women earned 29 percent of the science and engineering doctorates awarded in 1992, up from 24 percent of the total in 1982. Their proportions varied considerably by field: 59 percent in psychology; 38 percent in biological sciences; 35 percent in social sciences; 19 percent in mathematical sciences; 14 percent in computer science; and 9 percent in engineering.

Employment Levels and Trends

In 1990, women constituted 52 percent of the U.S. population and 46 percent of the labor force in all occupations, but only 22 percent of the science and engineering labor force.
Doctoral female scientists and engineers are less well off than men with respect to unemployment, underemployment, median salary, academic rank, and tenure. Women in the science and engineering labor force have, on average, less work experience than men. Even so, when women and men with similar years of professional experience are compared, differences between the sexes narrow but are not eliminated.
Within science and engineering, women tend to be more highly represented in fields with lower average salaries. While this distribution may help explain differences in salary, it does not explain why women experience higher unemployment and underemployment than men.
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