In his recent column, University of Florida social media professor Andrew Selepak expressed alarm that men are in the minority among university students. Although he quoted national statistics, the situation is similar at Florida’s State University System institutions. During the 2020-21 academic year, 56.9% of the students were women. Of the bachelor’s degrees awarded during that academic year, 59.4% were earned by women. In Selepak’s field, communications, women earned an even larger share of the bachelor’s degrees, 69.3%.
But in my classroom, the student population looks very different. I teach physics at Florida State University to students majoring in engineering, computer science and other math-intensive fields, and two-thirds of the students in my classroom are men because there are many more men than women majoring in and graduating in these fields. Of the bachelors’ degrees awarded in engineering by at Florida’s public universities in the 2020-21 academic year, only 23.9% were awarded to women. In computing fields, women earned only 20.4% of the bachelors’ degrees.
Engineering and computer science are among the most lucrative careers available. Of the 15 college majors with the highest early career median wages (as listed by the New York Fed in February 2023), 11 are in engineering or computer science. Therefore, the underrepresentation of women in engineering and computer science has serious consequences for the economic well-being of women. It also raises questions about whether young women have the same opportunities to enter high-paying fields as men do.
So how should we address the scarcity of women in the high-paying fields of engineering and computer science? Women majoring in engineering and computer science (as well as in other math-intensive fields like mine, physics) encounter social obstacles at the college level, and those must be addressed.
However, girls with interests in math and science confront headwinds long before that. Helping girls navigate these headwinds is intense work that involves building relationships with these students and their parents. Each summer, I work with Denise Newsome, a high school science and math teacher at Deane Bozeman School (a public school in rural northern Bay County), to present a day camp on nuclear science for 20 middle school students. The camp is supported by a grant from the National Nuclear Security Administration and campers do not pay to attend. Half of our campers are girls.
According to the American Association of University Women, middle school is the age at which girls start to lose interest in math and science, so our camp comes at the right age to encourage girls who might otherwise leave the career pipeline that leads to math-intensive STEM careers. Many more college faculty in science, engineering and computing will have to get involved in activities like this if we are to move the needle on the shortage of women in our fields.
My purpose here is not to dismiss the importance of coaxing more men into college. Instead, my intent is to point out that the issue of gender gaps in postsecondary education is complex and requires thoughtful and nuanced analysis.
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Those of us on university faculties need to do more than just talk about this issue. We need to do something about it by rolling up our sleeves and joining hands with K-12 teachers.
Paul Cottle, a physics professor at Florida State, was on the committee that wrote Florida’s K–12 science standards in 2007–2008 and was chairperson of the American Physical Society’s Committee on Education in 2013–2014.