A recent article in the New York Times ran with a cautious headline: “Women Gain in Some STEM Fields, but Not Computer Science.” Much of the overall data used in the article came from a report from the National Science Foundation (NSF) National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics Directorate for Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences. According to the NSF report, women’s shares of degrees in the physical sciences and mathematics remain well below those of men, even more so at the doctorate level. Women’s shares of mathematics degrees at the bachelor’s and master’s levels have declined since the early 2000s. Overall, Engineering has slightly more females than in 1991, but not much (15.5 % then and 18.4% in 2010). Computer science has more male graduates today than it had two decades ago (29.6% of computer science B.A.’s in 1991, compared with 18.2% in 2010).
Meanwhile, at the University of Kentucky we are seeing an increase since 2003 in the percent of female undergraduate enrollments in the STEM majors (those identified in UK’s reports to the Kentucky Council for Postsecondary Education – click on the image to the left to find the list). While the total STEM majors’ enrollments by at UK undergraduates in 2003-04 was 21% of the total enrollments, rising to 36% by 2012-13 – the percent of those enrolling in STEM majors’ courses who were female rose from 32% in 2003 to 46% in 2012-13.
When looking just at the number of females who earned UK bachelor’s degrees in STEM-H majors, we find widely disparate clusters of enrollment by gender:
- female-dominated STEM-H majors (in the Colleges of Health Sciences and of Nursing) at the very top of the percentage of women who earned their degrees at UK,
- male-dominated STEM-H majors (in the Colleges of Engineering and Business & Economics) at the bottom of the percentage scale, and
- the rest hovering between 30-55% female degreeholders. Of the middle cluster (which includes the Colleges of Agriculture, Arts & Sciences, Design and Education), female degreeholders are on the decline.
Globally, as access to postsecondary education continues to become more widespread, science-related fields are not as popular as they used to be. With the new academic year beginning (in the Northern hemisphere at least), more than 23 million people across the world headed to college for the first time this year. As the latest brief Education Indicators in Focus from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) shows, these new students will be a more diverse group than ever before – but some things don’t change. According to the OECD’s Education at a Glance 2013 report, among the college-going students – now more international, older and more females than ever before – the most popular fields are social sciences, business and law. Of the science-related fields (which in this report includes science, engineering, manufacturing and construction) women are particularly under-represented: in 2011 only 14% of female new entrants into tertiary education across the world chose science-related fields, compared with 39% of men. Among the new entrants, the proportion of women choosing science-related fields ranged from 5% in Belgium and Japan to 19% in Greece, Indonesia, Italy and Mexico. Among men, the proportion in these fields ranged from 18% in Argentina to 58% in Finland. Looking across the globe, women are more likely than men to earn a degree (completion rates averaging 74% for women and 65% for men) – only in Austria, Germany, Sweden and the United States is the difference between women’s and men’s completion rates below five percentage points. This short video below describes the changes that are happening globally in higher education.
This means that higher education institutions not only have to meet the growing demand for university education by expanding the number of openings but they must also adapt their curricula and pedagogies to match the changing needs of a more diverse student population.