The State of Women in STEM Education, According To Six Female Educators

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When I outlined this article several weeks ago, I envisioned a straight-line correlation between gender bias and the lack of female representation in STEM-related industries and STEM education. I will even admit that I tailored my questions to guide my interviewees down this path. Can you tell me about your experiences with discrimination? How does it feel to be in a male-dominated field? How do you feel about the recent attention to the wage gap? Do you consider yourself a feminist?

It was oh-so-typical of my current position in life as a woman in STEM; I saw the bias I knew. As I opened the doors of conversation with the six educators who took time to speak with me, I knew almost immediately that my linear plan had been naïve, foolish even. They all stated that yes – they believed that men and women were equals, so of course they were feminists, and they agreed that yes – there’s an imbalance of women in STEM fields, and there’s a lack of men in early education or language fields.

While gender bias is present in many fields of education at varying levels, it is not the only hurdle that educators face. Much like the African-American women during the first wave of Feminism back in the 1960’s, teachers of today’s world, both men and women, have larger, more specific issues that need to be addressed first.

To start off, I’ll say what I know we’re all thinking: when I think about elementary and middle schools, I think of a female majority, and at the mention of a “college professor,” I think about a man dressed in tweed with elbow patches and circular glasses. I might just be thinking about Indiana Jones, actually. According to the 2013 data collected by The World Bank[1], women overwhelmingly dominated primary education at 87%. Their numbers fall a bit in secondary education, though they still manage to hold the majority at 61%. However, once you start to break it down by the subject material, the percentages begin to fluctuate in a big way. In a 2003 study[2], women only held 28% of all higher education science and engineering positions, and in 2013, the Obama Administration released a memorandum informing academic institutes receiving federal funding about their obligations under Title IX to remove barriers to women’s participation in STEM Fields.[3]

My approach to a generalized gender gap didn’t really work – but I was still certain that a gender gap in education when it comes to STEM fields existed. I tracked down a few female science teachers and asked them about it. Was it a struggle to ‘make it’ as a female science educator?

Physics and AP Biology teacher Emily Schreiner didn’t seem to agree. “I have been interested in science ever since I was little – my mother majored in Biology when I was young and I remember seeing her doing labs [and] observations. I was fascinated.” She continued on to describe a fairly even male to female ratio during her time in school, and later on in her career. “Technology and engineering [was] prevalently dominated by men, but science was pretty much even.

In fact, most of the educators I spoke with had nothing but positive things to say about their educational experiences. They all seemed hard-pressed to come up with an example of gender discrimination during their time in school – though in their professional lives, there have been moments.

“I have had a few experiences where I was treated differently, though it’s not necessarily discrimination per se,” Assistant Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice Cassandra Atkin-Plunk said. “I had a male student come up to me, I believe he wanted an extension on a paper, and [he tried] to put his arm around me. While this might not be considered discrimination, he never would have done that to a male professor.”

Atkin-Plunk when on to describe Criminal Justice and Criminology as a non-STEM field that was largely dominated by men. “I think [it] stems from a long-held societal belief that men are the protectors.” Maybe this was it – was this outdated notion the same reason that men seemed to hold more of the upper-ranking positions in education?

For teacher turned K-12 coordinator of differentiation and inclusion, Heidi Burns, it was a possibility. “I think women are typically seen as more nurturing and therefore better suited for the younger grades. I believe there are some deep-rooted gender biases still at work in elementary, middle school, and high school education in America.”

Assistant Professor of Theater, Alison Frost, was inclined to think along similar lines to Burns. “I think more of the decision makers are men, and more of the worker bees are women,” she said. “[Our] department chair is a man, and the one before him was a man. And the one before him… I see it lots of places.”

On the other hand, elementary school educator Rachel Patterson thought the differences in male representation in the early years of childhood education could be simply a matter of men and women playing to strengths. “Elementary schools are dominated by women – and in those early years, teachers can’t just teach one subject – if you teach math, you teach math and science. Men usually want to teach a specific subject, [and] that leads them to higher grades.” So if we look at this like a psychologist might, the absence of men in elementary schools – or rather, the abundance of women – could simply be about multitasking. Studies[4] have shown that women excel in the art of multitasking, often surpassing their male counterparts in the ability to prioritize, switch back and forth between tasks, and manage general chaos, a necessary skill in a first grade classroom.

When I mentioned the correlation to Burns, she considered it, but didn’t bite. “I think it has to do with access to schooling, or maybe career counseling. Women are encouraged to go into child development or early childhood fields – are men given the same options?

I tried to approach the issue from a different perspective; I wasn’t getting anywhere with a numbers game, so I changed my question. While women hold a majority in many fields of education at both primary and secondary levels, how is their presence in the classroom being represented in our culture?

“I had a friend who was working on her math teaching credential and was constantly having to deal with the snarky comments about not being able to make it as a mathematician,” said Burns. “Honestly, I think a lot of people buy into that, ‘if you can’t do – teach’ nonsense. And… I can’t even talk about that.” This gave me pause because, well, I had heard that before. Where did we get this idea?  It has been my experience that in order to teach something to someone, you have to know the material inside and out again. An educator is required to have a better answer than, “well, because that’s how it is,” which is how multiple successful software developers and audio experts have attempted to explain their work to me. A teacher doesn’t get off that easy.

“Apparently those who don’t teach have no idea how much do-ing is involved,” Burns continued. “Maybe people don’t realize the depth of understanding required to pass on knowledge and skills. Teaching isn’t just telling. It is leading [students] into exploration that provides them with the opportunity to discover the knowledge you know they need.”

And Frost echoes a similar sentiment. “The job for me, especially when I taught high school, was 6am to 10 or 11 at night. The job isn’t just about teaching – it’s also about counseling and policing students.”

At the mention of counseling, of policing, it dawns on me. When I think about the lessons I learned and how I became the person I am today, there are two sources I can trace every single conviction back to: my family and my teachers. With students coming in from different home lives, socioeconomic backgrounds, and at varying stages of development, how does an educator begin to tackle the notions of equality?

“I think one of the strongest terms we can use to today, instead of gender or race, is ‘minority’ – that simple differentiation,” said ESL Professor, Geo Smith. “Women are still a minority, and black people are minorities. That’s a way to look at all of these issues as one, unified thing.” Smith continued to explain the power of unifying the different minority groups rather than distinguishing each party from each other. And the benefit of his shift is evident in the supportiveness of his multi-racial students. “They’re all immigrants here in this country to go to school, to learn at an American school. And they don’t get why race or gender or these issues are so prevalent in American culture. They just can’t understand it.”

“When you’re a teacher, you can’t really say, ‘that’s wrong and this is right,’ but a lot of time you just present what you know, and lead them to what you hope is the right answer,” said Patterson with a small laugh. “When it would come to things about race or gender, I just let them know what I know.”

Other educators have taken a more structural approach to promoting equality. Schreiner enforces a clear-cut grading system that she presents at the beginning of each year. “My grading criteria abides the system that I’ve established, i.e. second day late is a 25% grade reduction, [and this yields] fair results for each student.”

Frost, through her medium of theater, has worked hard to present equal opportunities for the female students she teaches, and leaves the dialogue open for discussion. “As a woman in our department, I am infinitely more aware than my colleagues about the balance of roles for woman and men – and I am continually looking for plays where I can switch genders or where genders don’t matter so I can give [the women] more roles.”

“We need to do so much more both to support girls and to hold boys accountable,” said Burns. “We need to devote instructional time to learning how to be good people. We should talk openly about sexism and racism and classism – we teachers have to be comfortable facilitating those conversations and we need to realize it is as important as reading or math.

But unfortunately, learning how to be a good person isn’t one of the national benchmarks right now. “It’s all based around the tests,” Patterson tells me. I can hear how frustrated she is. “You try to teach them the information that will be on those tests, and then you try to fill in the gaps, but they miss things. And they don’t really fail kids anymore, they get pushed along the system.” This is a point of contention for a lot of the educators. With the current educational system in the United States, kids are forced up through the grades, regardless of their grasp of the material. “A lot of kids end up in middle school and high school that are doing really badly and know they’ll never make it to college. I try to give them the encouragement to go to trade school or vocational school – I hope it will be the extra push that says, ‘don’t give up so quickly – there are other choices.’ I try to make sure they know there are other kinds of jobs.”

“No one comes in and evaluates your classroom for creativity,” adds Burns. “No one tests your children on their ability to creatively solve problems or make something beautiful. No one bases the success of your school on how well your children resolve conflict. Which is tragic because I just described the building blocks of a beautiful world.”

It would seem that there is an issue with gender bias in education, but educators hardly have the time or energy to worry about it. The system they attempt to work within is broken in so many ways – benchmark testing is put above educational development, schools are underfunded and constantly in need of supplies and modernization, and the biggest factor that defies gender lines for both men and women trying to teach students of the United States: their professional compensation.

“Oh man. How much do you have on the tragedy that is the teacher’s salary?” said Burns. “The numbers are horrifying. I try not to know them.”

“There’s a starting salary, and that’s true for everyone,” Patterson told me. “You earn x amount of dollars for your first two years, and then it goes up. The unfortunate thing is that if you started teaching in 1980, making $30,000, you’d only be making something like $45,000.” According to the National Education Association[5], the 2012 starting salary average for the United States was $36,141. The raises for public school educators do not often account for inflation.

“There’s this notion that teaching is noble, so we don’t need to be paid much because our reward is the satisfaction of seeing the light of understanding dawn in the mind of a child,” Burns scoffed. “You know what other profession is noble? Medicine.”

As it stands right now, as a mid-level tech professional I make more annually than a 25-year veteran public school educator, and it’s not that I don’t deserve it. It’s that the 25-year old veteran deserves so much more. What have I contributed to the world in the last 25 years? Funny voices in a Bluetooth speaker and a fair amount of audio for telephone voice recognition programs. People don’t trust me with the physical and emotional well being of the future generation, and I don’t have to impart wisdom on to anyone in return. That rarely stops me from doing it, though.

We deliver our children to their educators, backpacks and brains filled to the brim with biases and single-minded perspectives, and we ask the teachers to shape them, often times fix them, and help transform them into halfway decent human beings who will one day run our companies, our countries, and most importantly, our future schools. So while gender, or race, or any other number of minority biases are an issue, they’re not the prevailing one for educators, not by a landslide.

“Education is at the lower point of the trickle down of beliefs from society – it becomes a collecting pool. You want to see what our society values? Look into a pre-college classroom,” said Burns. “Look into more than one classroom. It’s hard to miss.”


[1] The World Bank, primary education percentage

[2] Female Faculty and the Sciences

[3] Women and Girls In STEM

[4] Women Better At Multitasking Than Men, Study Finds

[5] 2012-2013 Starting Salary

(image via Shutterstock)

Eleanor Thibeaux is a San Francisco Bay Area-based writer and audio post-production engineer originally from the Lone Star State. A tech geek, science fiction/fantasy fanatic, and dessert enthusiast, Eleanor is the kind of Type A person who puts “finish season 4 of Battlestar Galactica” on her to-do list. It’s important to have priorities. You can find her other works via her website, or follow her every important thought on Twitter: @ethibeaux

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Sam Maggs
Sam Maggs is a writer and televisioner, currently hailing from the Kingdom of the North (Toronto). Her first book, THE FANGIRL'S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY will be out soon from Quirk Books. Sam’s parents saw Star Wars: A New Hope 24 times when it first came out, so none of this is really her fault.