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The Review of Higher Education 24.2 (2000) 153-172

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Undergraduate Science Majors:
Gender Differences in Who Goes to Graduate School

Linda J. Sax


In the past thirty years, the number of science, math, and engineering (SME) 1 bachelor's, master's, and doctoral degrees awarded to women has increased by 106%, 150%, and 267%, respectively (National Science Foundation, 1995). Although the gender gap has certainly narrowed in these past decades, women have not yet achieved parity. Currently, women are underrepresented among SME degree recipients at all levels, particularly at the graduate level, earning 35% of bachelor's degrees, 26% of master's degrees, and 24% of doctoral degrees (calculated from NSF, 1999, data).

Numerous studies have addressed women's underrepresentation in science, providing many answers to such questions as: Why are young girls [End Page 153] less interested in science than boys are? What factors discourage women from taking more math and science courses in high school? What types of women choose to major in SME fields in college? And among them, who persists toward the bachelor's degree?

However, fewer studies address the question of persistence in science after the undergraduate years. In some ways, this question is more difficult to answer. Certainly, a student with a bachelor's degree in physics who ultimately earns a physics doctorate can be considered an SME persister. And an engineer-turned-artist can probably be considered a nonpersister in SME. However, what about the undergraduate math major who becomes a junior high school algebra teacher? Or the biology major who becomes a heart surgeon? Certainly these individuals have not abandoned SME fields entirely. For this reason, any study of persistence in SME beyond the undergraduate years must be particularly careful with definitions.

This study defines persistence in SME as the pursuit of a graduate degree in an SME field. This definition purposefully focuses on the development of the talent pool of academic scientists, engineers, and other scientific researchers. More specifically, this study focuses on how predictors of enrollment in SME graduate programs differ between men and women. Although there is no consensus as to whether there is an economic "need" for more research scientists (National Academy of Sciences, 1995), certainly the development of this talent pool should be mindful of equity.

Factors Influencing Women's Interest in Science

A significant body of literature has explored women's interest and participation in science throughout elementary, secondary, and higher education (e.g., Frieze & Hanusa, 1984; Higher Education Research Institute, 1992; Matyas, 1985; Oakes, 1990; Rosser, 1990; Seymour & Hewitt, 1994; Sonnert, 1995). Such work has identified several sources of influence on women's decisions to enroll in SME courses or major in SME fields. The most oft-cited explanations for women's lack of participation in SME can be summarized as follows:

1. Lack of early preparation. In junior high and high school, women's interest in math and science declines, and they take significantly fewer math and science courses than men. This differential course-taking prevents many women from majoring in science in college.

2. Lack of parental encouragement. For the most part, parents continue to discourage daughters from pursuing majors and careers in science.

3. Concerns about balancing career with family. Many women resist the pursuit of science because they perceive an SME career as incompatible with raising a family. In fact, research has shown that women's science career attainment and productivity tend to be compromised during child-bearing [End Page 154] and early child-rearing years. This period for most women occurs during the crucial early stages of their career.

4. Negative perceptions about the life of a scientist. Also influencing women's disinterest in science is an image of science careers as lonely, excessively demanding, and relatively unconnected to the improvement of society.

5. Limited access to role models and mentors. Due to the under representation of women in scientific careers, women students encounter fewer potential role models and same-sex mentors than men do.

6. Unwelcoming pedagogy in science. Compared with other...


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