NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


September 16, 2009

Although objective measures suggest that when they enter college women and men are roughly equal in their aptitude and preparedness for careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), female college students are 37 percent less likely than male college students to obtain a bachelor's degree in one of those fields.  Why is that the case and could it change?

In "Sex and Science: How Professor Gender Perpetuates the Gender Gap," co-authors Scott Carrell, Marianne Page and James West exploit a unique dataset of 9,481 students who comprised the U.S. Air Force Academy's graduating classes of 2000 through 2008 to try to answer these questions.

According to the researchers:

  • Female students' course grades in math and science are improved when they have a female professor.
  • For the top quartile of female students as measured by SAT math scores, having a higher proportion of female professors in introductory math and science courses significantly increases the likelihood that women will choose a STEM major.
  • Overall, their estimates suggest that increasing the fraction of female professors from zero to 100 percent would completely eliminate the gender gap in math and science majors.

On the whole, men in this sample with the same entering math ability perform substantially better than female students in introductory math and science courses.  However, this gap is mitigated when top performing female students have female professors in math and science classes.  Professor gender appears to be irrelevant in the humanities, though, and does not appear to affect male performance.

When all female students are considered, rather than only those in the highest quartile, having a higher proportion of female professors does not effect a woman's likelihood of taking higher level math courses or her probability of graduating with a STEM major, concluded the researchers.

Source: Linda Gorman, "The Professors' Gender May Perpetuate the Gender Gap," NBER Digest, September 2009; based upon: Scott E. Carrell, Marianne E. Page and James E. West, "Sex and Science: How Professor Gender Perpetuates the Gender Gap," National Bureau of Economic Research, Working Paper No. 14959, May 2009.

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