In 2013, women earned only 17.9 percent of all US bachelor’s degrees awarded in computer science, and 19.3 percent of those awarded in engineering, despite the fact that over half of all bachelor’s degrees were awarded to women. This underrepresentation of women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics is exacerbated in the work force, where only 15 percent of engineers, and 25 percent of computer scientists and mathematicians are female. Unfortunately, this disparity is evident starting early. In secondary education, women are severely underrepresented among Advanced Placement test-takers in technical fields.
Advanced Placement classes teach curriculum designed by the College Board, and are offered to high school students as college-preparatory classes. Following completion of the course, students may take an optional AP Exam to demonstrate their mastery of the course content, and potentially earn college credit. While AP classes are not the only way to learn this content, participation in this curriculum provides a lens for analyzing equity in STEM education.
In the 2016 test administrations, women comprised only a quarter of test-takers in STEM subjects like physics, calculus and computer science; while making up roughly half of test-takers in non-STEM fields like US History.
This disparity is especially troubling, because women are no less capable than men on these technical tests. For example, the 2016 AP Computer Science score distribution looks very similar for men and women. AP exams are graded on a scale of one to five, where scores three and above are considered passing. From the graph below, a slightly higher percentage of women earned failing scores of one and two, and a somewhat lower percentage of women earned high pass scores of four and five; however, a higher percentage of women actually earned scores of three, as compared to men. On average, the score for women on the AP Computer Science exam was 2.90, as compared to 3.05 for men, representing roughly equivalent success levels.
Given that women are so severely underrepresented among STEM AP test takers, yet equally competent, it is integral that high school girls have opportunities to engage actively with STEM content and learn in classrooms committed to achieving both high quality instruction and gender parity. This is a necessary first step to changing the underrepresentation of women in the technical workforce. Young women are more likely to enter and succeed in fields in which they can see themselves. However, this can only be achieved when female students have the same opportunities as male students to succeed in STEM fields during high school and college, and then encounter successful role models in the professional world.
Representation is not only important because it motivates individual students, but also because truly equitable workplaces cannot and will not exist, until normalization of women in STEM is achieved. Every traditional concern that exists for women in the technical workforce– from glass ceilings and equal pay, to maternal leave and protection from sexual harassment – can be viewed as symptoms of underrepresentation. If female engineers, computer scientists, physicists, and technical leaders were abundant and indispensable, these would not be women’s issues, rather they would be company priorities.
Achieving this level of gender equity starts at the primary school level – ideally even before high school when AP testing happens. Toys like GoldieBlox and JewelBots are engaging young girls with engineering design, while programs like Girls Who Code, and the Awards for Aspirations in Computing, sponsored by the National Center for Women and Information Technology, target school-age women. The next step is to translate this engagement into representation. The number of women taking STEM-related AP Tests appears to be increasing, albeit slowly, and with dedication, intentionality and grit, gender equity in technical fields can be achieved.