Dr. Lara Perez-Felkner

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Gender Disparities in STEM


This project examines gendered, racial-ethnic, socioeconomic, and school-level differences in the changing landscape of post-secondary STEM education among U.S. youth. Specifically, we investigate the effects of engagement, school resources, and opportunity structures on female and male college students’ persistence in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields (STEM), with a particular focus on those fields with the strongest patterns of sex segregation. We use the most recent NCES longitudinal surveys of youth that presently follow students through post-secondary matriculation, employing advanced regression and quasi-experimental techniques to estimate these pathways towards and away from scientific degrees.

This longitudinal research shows distinctions in patterns between Physical, Engineering, Mathematical, and Computer (PEMC) Sciences as compared to other STEM fields. In multiple papers, it is shown that those mathematically strongest girls early in high school often select Biological, Health, and Social and Behavioral Sciences. Subjective, social psychological perceptions in high school — seemingly exacerbated in advanced course taking — partially explain these patterns.

Representative publications:

Milesi, C., Perez-Felkner, L., Brown, K, & Schneider, B. (revise & resubmit, revisions accepted). Engagement, Persistence, and Gender in Computer Science: Results of a Smartphone ESM Study. Frontiers in Psychology.

While the underrepresentation of women in the fast-growing STEM field of computer science (CS) has been much studied, no consensus exists on the key factors influencing this widening gender gap. Possible suspects include gender differences in aptitude, interest, and academic environment. Our study contributes to this literature by applying student engagement research to study the experiences of college students studying CS, to assess the degree to which differences in men and women’s engagement may help account for gender inequity in the field. Specifically, we use the Experience Sampling Method (ESM) to evaluate in real-time the engagement of college students during varied activities and environments. Over the course of a full week in fall semester and a full week in spring semester, 165 students majoring in CS at two Research I universities were “beeped” several times a day via a smartphone app prompting them to fill out a short questionnaire including open-ended and scaled items. These responses were paired with administrative and over two years of transcript data provided by their institutions. We used mean comparisons and logistic regression analysis to compare enrollment and persistence patterns among CS men and women. Results suggest that despite the obstacles associated with women’s underrepresentation in computer science, women are more likely to continue taking computer science courses when they felt challenged and skilled in their initial computer science classes. We discuss implications for further research.Perez-

Perez-Felkner, L., Nix, S., & Thomas, K. (in press). Gendered Pathways: How Mathematics Ability Beliefs Shape Course and Degree Choices from High School through College. Frontiers in Psychology.

Do mathematics ability beliefs explain gender gaps in the physical science, engineering, mathematics, and computer science fields (PEMC) and other science fields? We leverage U.S. longitudinal, nationally representative data to estimate gendered differences in girls’ and boys’ perceptions of mathematics ability with the most difficult or challenging material. Our analyses examine the potentially interacting effects of gender and these ability beliefs on students’ pathways to scientific careers. Specifically, we study how beliefs about ability with challenging mathematics influence girls’ and boys’ choices to pursue PEMC degrees, evaluating educational milestones over a six year period: advanced science course completion in secondary school and postsecondary major retention and selection. In doing so, we review our recently published findings and present additional findings further demonstrating gender differences in secondary school mathematics ability beliefs in relation to objective ability measures and the consequences of these beliefs for students’ chosen degree fields.

Schneider, B., Milesi, C., Perez-Felkner, L., Brown, K., & Gutin, I. (2015). Does the gender gap in STEM majors vary by field and institutional selectivity? Teachers College Record. See also summary poster and full-text.

This research brief examines the gender gap in specific STEM majors among college sophomores and whether this gap varies across institutions of different selectivity. Using national longitudinal data, results show that women’s underrepresentation on STEM is solely driven by the field of physics, mathematics, engineering, and computer science (PEMC) and that the gender gap in this particular STEM field is ubiquitous across institutions of different selectivity levels. Men are three to four times more likely to major in PEMC even when comparing males and females scoring at the top of the SATs, who have a positive orientation toward math, and are enrolled at highly selective institutions.

Nix, S., Perez-Felkner, L. C., & Thomas, K. (2015). Perceived mathematical ability under challenge: A longitudinal perspective on sex segregation among STEM degree fields. Frontiers in Psychology, 6. See Appendix Supplement and related press.

In this manuscript, we investigate how perceived ability under challenge—in particular in mathematics domains—influences entry into the most sex-segregated and mathematics-intensive undergraduate degrees: physics, engineering, mathematics, and computer science (PEMC). Using nationally representative Education Longitudinal Study of 2002 (ELS) data, we estimate the influence of perceived ability under challenging conditions on advanced high school science course taking, selection of an intended STEM major, and specific major type 2 years after high school. Demonstrating the importance of specificity when discussing how gender influences STEM career pathways, the intersecting effects of gender and perceived ability under mathematics challenge were distinct for each scientific major category. Perceived ability under challenge in secondary school varied by gender, and was highly predictive of selecting PEMC and health sciences majors. Notably, women’s 12th grade perceptions of their ability under mathematics challenge increased their probability of selecting PEMC majors over and above biology. In addition, gender moderated the effect of growth mindset on students’ selection of health science majors. Perceptions of ability under challenge in general and verbal domains also influenced retention in and declaration of certain STEM majors. The implications of these results are discussed, with particular attention to access to advanced scientific coursework in high school and interventions aimed at enhancing young women’s perceptions of their ability, in particular in response to the potentially inhibiting influence of stereotype threat on their pathways to scientific degrees.

Perez-Felkner, L., Thomas, K., Nix, S., Hopkins, J., & D’Sa, M. (conference paper 2015). Are two-year colleges the key to expanding the scientific labor force? Unpacking gender and racial-ethnic gaps in undergraduate STEM degrees.

While increasingly utilized, particularly by women, two-year colleges are rarely considered in studies of participation gaps in undergraduate STEM degrees. This manuscript uses Beginning Postsecondary Students: 2004/09 panel data and a propensity score design to compare women’s degree attainment at two- and four-year colleges, with a focus on underrepresented women. Results indicate that the probability of men majoring in natural/engineering sciences is four times higher (19.8 percent) than that of women (5.1 percent), while women are more likely to major in life and social/behavioral sciences. The gender gap in natural/engineering science degrees is widest among Asian students and narrowest among other/multiracial students. Social/behavioral sciences have the narrowest gender gaps but attract more than twice as many high mathematics ability women as natural/engineering sciences. Most notably, the gender gap in STEM degree completion is remarkably similar across two- and four-year college students.

Perez-Felkner, L. (2015). Achievement Differences and Gender. In R. Gunstone (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Science Education. (pp. 9-10): Springer Netherlands. doi: 10.1007/978-94-007-2150-0_349. Full-text available here.

This brief discusses hypotheses and accompanying empirical debate around gender differences in science achievement.

Perez-Felkner, L. (2015). Attitude Differences and Gender. In R. Gunstone (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Science Education (pp. 93-94): Springer Netherlands. doi: 10.1007/978-94-007-2150-0_351 Full-text available here.

This brief discusses hypotheses and accompanying empirical debate about how attitudes about science and gender contribute to gender differences in science education and careers.

Perez-Felkner, L., McDonald, S.-K., & Schneider, B. L. (2014). What happens to high-achieving females after high school? Gender and persistence on the postsecondary STEM pipeline. In I. Schoon & J. S. Eccles (Eds.), Gender differences in aspirations and attainment: A life course perspective (pp. 285-320). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Full-text here.

Although progress has been made in reducing gender inequality in postsecondary education, in the U.S. and in other countries, gender gaps remain in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields judged so critical to economic competitiveness. Using the Educational Longitudinal Study of 2002, we examine the secondary school experiences of young women and men and the impact of these experiences on their subsequent courses of study in college. In particular, we use this large-scale study to examine the effect of the psychological indicators (such as deep interest or absorption in the subject matter) suggested to be important predictors of persistence in small-scale studies of women specializing in STEM fields at the postsecondary level. Focusing the analysis on high-achieving youth who have completed the secondary school STEM pipeline course sequences, we find that academic preparation in secondary school is the critically important consideration in keeping American males on the STEM pipeline midway through their undergraduate postsecondary educational experience. African American males who have completed these sequences are the most likely to declare STEM majors and Latino males are least likely, net of nativity status. For high-achieving females on the whole however, coursetaking is insufficient to keep them on the STEM pipeline. Their orientation towards mathematics and external supports from engaged family, school staff, and friends are powerful predictors of their persistence in STEM at the postsecondary level.

Perez-Felkner, L. C., Nix, S., Hopkins, J., & Thomas, K. (presented 2014). Is the Gender Gap in STEM Culturally-Specific? Choosing Scientific and Other Career Fields in Cambodia. Paper presented at American Educational Research Association Annual Meeting, AERA, Philadelphia, PA.

Little is understood regarding the ambitions of Cambodia’s people, the majority of which are young and often at least partially enrolled in university. In the throes of rapid development, Cambodia is gambling on an investment in higher education. This paper reports on analyses of primary and secondary data on Cambodian universities. Interestingly, focus group interviews and fieldwork show regional and class variation in attitudes among students and their parents about the appropriateness of girls going into engineering, computer/information technology, and accounting. This may be because of the compounding effects of decades of communism and NGO involvement in emphasizing gender equality on an otherwise traditional culture. This study has implications for investments to keep women in the scientific pipeline.

Perez-Felkner, L., McDonald, S.-K., Schneider, B., & Grogan, E. (2012). Female and Male Adolescents’ Subjective Orientations to Mathematics and Their Influence on Postsecondary Majors. Developmental Psychology, 48(6), 1658–1673. See also APA link.

Although important strides toward gender parity have been made in several scientific fields, women remain underrepresented in the physical sciences, engineering, mathematics, and computer sciences (PEMCs). This study examines the effects of adolescents’ subjective orientations, course taking, and academic performance on the likelihood of majoring in PEMC in college. Results indicate that racial-ethnic and gender underrepresentation in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields are interrelated and should be examined with attention to the intersecting factors influencing female and racial-ethnic minority adolescents’ pathways toward careers in these fields. Among those who major in PEMC fields, women closely resemble men with respect to their subjective orientations. The effects of subjective orientations on women’s chances of majoring in PEMC vary by their secondary school mathematics course completion levels. Women who take more mathematics courses are more likely to major in PEMC; however, course taking alone does not attenuate gender disparities in declaring these majors. High mathematics ability (as measured by standardized test scores in the 10th grade) appears to be positively associated with women’s selection of social, behavioral, clinical, and health science majors. This association is less robust (and slightly negative) for women in PEMC. While advanced course taking appears to assist women in selecting PEMC majors, women who enter these fields may not be as strong as those who select other, less male-dominated scientific fields.

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