Calculus Self-Perception a Barrier to Women in STEM Tracks

(Photo: Wikimedia, Creative Commons)

(Photo: Wikimedia, Creative Commons)

A study published in PLOSone suggests that women are less likely than men to continue with a STEM-related education after taking calculus than men are.

Predictions from the US President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) suggest that over the next decade, close to one million additional STEM graduates will be needed to meet the growing demands of the workforce.

First-year college and university math courses have been found to act as a bottleneck for STEM majors, with introductory courses such as Calculus I causing many students to leave the STEM field.  The authors say that while the course is not the only hurdle STEM majors must face throughout their education, it is one of the most challenging and one of the first hurdle they will come up against.

The study, “Women 1.5 Times More Likely to Leave STEM Pipeline after Calculus Compared to Men: Lack of Mathematical Confidence a Potential Culprit,” found that not only are women 1.5 times less likely to continue a STEM-related education than men are after taking a mainstream college calculus course when academic preparedness is controlled for, but they also were more likely to report not understanding the information presented within the course well enough to feel comfortable continuing compared to men.

The common belief is that students are leaving STEM majors because of a lack of academic ability, with the calculus course working to “weed out” those incapable of performing the math necessary to succeed in a STEM career.  However, the authors suggest that, instead, the path of moving from a STEM major to a non-STEM major is generated from a number of issues including conceptual difficulties, poor instruction, inadequate preparation, and language barriers.

When women and men who have above-average mathematical abilities were compared, the authors found that on average, women were more likely to begin and end the term with significantly lower confidence in their math skills.  The report suggests that this finding could be a reason for the high departure rate of women in STEM-related areas.

Of survey participants, 35% of women reported their reason for not continuing on to Calculus II as “I do not believe I understand the ideas of Calculus I well enough to take Calculus II,” in comparison to 14% of men.  Of those interested in pursuing a STEM major, 32% of women cited this as their reason in comparison with 20% of men.

The report states that a perception of one’s ability plays a role in the decision-making process for women but not as much for men, and that previous research does not show an actual difference exists in women’s mathematical ability.

The authors suggest that if women were to continue on the STEM career path after completing Calculus I at the same rate as men, the number of women who then enter the STEM workforce would increase by 75%.

The report goes on to say that if the retention of STEM majors were to be increased by just 10%, considerable progress would be made toward the goal of increasing the number of graduates in this field.  Similar suggestions have been made for the United Kingdom.

Kristin Decarr

Kristin Decarr

Kristin Decarr

Latest posts by Kristin Decarr (see all)