Broadening Educational Opportunities for Women

by Catherine Riegle-Crumb

A recent study that has been receiving attention on the web (here) concluded that as educational opportunities for women across Europe expanded over many decades, so that women earned the same number of years of education as men, there was a corresponding decrease in gender gaps in cognitive tests of numeracy. Simply put, when women had the chance to attend school for the same length of time as men, men’s advantage on math tests dramatically declined. This new study adds to a large body of academic research which finds that gender differences on standardized tests are found to be larger or smaller depending on a host of social and cultural factors, including the educational opportunities that societies offer their young men and women.

Of course, when thinking about whether and how educational opportunities in a society are equal for women and men, we want to think beyond the amount of years of education received. In the United States (and many other developed countries) young women enter college at higher rates than men and are more likely to earn a degree. Yet we certainly can’t say that gender inequality is no longer a problem. Women remain less likely than men to enter science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) majors in college, a factor that contributes to their relatively lower occupational earnings and mobility later on.

It can be tempting to take a very narrow view of this issue. One might say that since no one is actively restricting young college women from entering STEM fields, then they have the same opportunity to pursue these fields as men. Or put differently, if young women have the same (or better) chances of going to college as young men, and they happen to choose to enter non-STEM fields, then this is simply a matter of choice, right?

While appealing in its simplicity, such a narrow perspective ignores the numerous ways that our society continues to limit women’s educational choices by telling them that math and science are not feminine and are really better suited for men and boys. My own research (here) addresses this topic and finds that young women continue to be subjected to bias and stereotypes about their math ability. Many other researchers in sociology and psychology also find evidence that girls receive less encouragement from parents and peers to pursue STEM fields and are continuously exposed to social messages (including from the media) about their presumed inferiority relative to boys.

Such messages may be subtle but are nonetheless powerful; indeed their less overt nature arguably makes them more effective. Anyone can point to a single instance of bias and argue that it is unintentional and/or small enough that it is not really something to worry about (e.g. a teacher calls on boys in math class before girls). Yet such experiences begin early at school and in the home and continue to occur and accumulate over many years.

Therefore if we want to increase the number of women who enter and are successful in STEM fields (where incidentally there is a high national demand), then we need to think about educational opportunity a little differently. Can we offer more young girls the opportunity to see and interact with women role models? Can we do a better job of educating our math and science teachers about the subtle hand of bias so that our young girls have the opportunity to learn in a gender equitable classroom? Can we as parents, friends, and community members refrain from the constant social dialogue about ‘how boys and girls are just so different’? These are some of the challenges we face if we want to ensure that girls have the opportunity to see their educational and occupational futures as not fundamentally dictated by their gender.

Catherine Riegle-Crumb is associate professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin. Her co-authored article, “Exploring bias in math teachers’ perceptions of students’ ability by gender and race/ethnicity,” is published in the April 2012 issue of Gender & Society

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