Addressing Gender Confidence Gaps in STEM

Photo Credit: U.S. Army RDECOM

Structuring college courses in STEM – and other subject areas – to ensure that all students are able to engage and succeed is worth our time.

It took me a minute to absorb the true importance of recent research on how gender impacts behavior and engagement in STEM subjects.

Essentially, the research shows that there’s a confidence gap between men and women in STEM fields. In many subjects, that means men are more willing to participate in class discussions and answer questions. Women, on the other hand, tend to participate more than men when answering questions online, in an anonymous format.

It’s not true across the board, of course. The smallest gaps in confidence between men and women were found in astronomy/astrophysics, accounting/finance and economics. The largest? Robotics, bioengineering and computer science.

Ultimately, this research suggests that colleges and universities need to pay attention to curriculum design, ensuring that there are a variety of ways to engage with content and classmates.

Adding another layer of urgency: the research also showed that if a confidence gap exists in a particular course or even an entire field, it doesn’t close over time. It only widens.

In all honesty, my immediate reaction was to be dismissive of the idea that courses need to be more accommodating. You’re intimidated? Get over it. You won’t succeed in STEM fields if you can’t even answer a question in class. But then I really thought about it.

It was wrong to be dismissive. And, such an instinctive reaction – from someone who considers herself a feminist and a cheerleader for women in STEM – only demonstrates the importance of disseminating and taking action on this data.

Because when we speak of diversity and equity, we’re not just speaking of traits visible to the naked eye. We’re also speaking of diversity of thought and methods of learning. Ensuring that course design is accessible and promotes better outcomes for a variety of learners can only benefit our students. And, making these accommodations likely will help build confidence along the way.

I hope that deans, department chairs and STEM champions across campuses nationwide will take note, take action and take more students down the path to success.

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