Where are all the female scientists? That’s been the question as of late, as the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics — a bundle known collectively as STEM — seek to understand where the hard science gender gap comes from.

First, curiously enough, came Verizon. In June, the company released a commercial that quickly picked up speed as a way of cluing people into the dearth of ladies in lab coats. Spliced between shots of a young girl repeatedly being told not to dirty her dress or play with power tools, the ad revealed statistics from the National Science Foundation. We learned, for instance, that 66 percent of fourth grade girls say they like science and math (and 68 percent of boys, but the ad leaves that out); yet, only 18 percent of college engineering majors are female. Why?

It’s important to understand these data points approach the problem from two ends, which makes them somewhat unreliable. Prior research has already found not only are women more likely to pursue college degrees in general; they’re more likely to go on to earn doctoral degrees in their given fields, too. And all things considered, engineering is an outlier. In 2012, women dominated doctoral degrees in the biological and agricultural sciences, health sciences, and social and behavior sciences.

But that doesn’t mean trends can’t reverse, argue some researchers interested in finding out just how likely such an event is to occur. Recently, ASU neuroscientist-turned-education researcher Sara Brownell collaborated with Sarah Eddy and Mary Pat Wenderoth from the University of Washington to understand why female biology students, despite outnumbering their male peers, approached their education with hesitance.

"Often, gender differences are assumed to be present only in fields where males outnumber females and where there is a strong emphasis on math," said Brownell, assistant professor with ASU's School of Life Sciences, in a statement. What she found, however, was that a female-dominated classroom didn’t predict strong female involvement, no matter the subject. “It's likely this is not unique to physics or biology, but rather true of most undergraduate classrooms."

Brownell and Eddy observed 23 classes at a research university over a two-year period. Most students were sophomore biology majors, and of the 5,000 students in total, 60 percent were female. Looking at test scores and participation rates, they found exam scores were 2.8 percent lower among female students than male students, and more often than not the students who participated were male.

On the bright side, more female students are still emerging from these biology courses. But according to Eddy, the structures within a classroom tend to favor the students who are more aggressive at answering questions, which she views as a negative. "Introductory biology classes are the first opportunities for many students to interact with professionals and peers in their intended fields," she said. If questions get squandered, or silenced, confidence levels could fall. And the newfound equity among the sexes could seep back toward a tilted playing field.

To avoid this, the research team suggests professors randomize their class roster. Rather than allow students to answer freely, the instructor would enjoy total control over who gets called on, all while staying at the mercy of the list. Too often, professors share the responsibility in favoring the students who are more tenacious, Brownell argues.

"In order to solve the problem, instructors must be aware that it even exists," she said. "That's really the point of this paper — to illustrate that there are gender differences that should not exist. The next steps are to try to determine what causes these differences and then develop additional strategies that instructors can use to lessen those differences."

Of course, all this is couched in a perhaps grimmer reality once school finally ends: Even if the gender gap closes, the wage gap endures. In 2012, female physicians in the U.S. earned $56,000 less a year, on average, compared to male physicians. While this statistic may well reflect personal choices, such as pursuing lower career tracks and devoting time to childrearing, these choices are still a product of external forces. The U.S. is one of only four countries that carries no federal mandate for businesses to offer parental leave. Lesotho, Swaziland, and Papua New Guinea are the others.

In the end, the highest rank researchers can reach — full-time faculty — too often eludes women, and this is a problem, Brownell told Medical Daily. But for as big a problem as it may be, "the bigger problem is that even though some are kept in the pipeline, other women, who could have been fantastic scientists, dropped out along the way."

Source: Eddy S, Brownell S, Wenderoth M. Gender Gaps in Achievement and Participation in Multiple Introductory Biology Classrooms. CBE — Life Science Education. 2014.