The Gender Gap

Mara Cavallaro and Sarah Orttung

For every girl in AP physics, there are four boys enrolled in the class. Females outnumber males six to one in Liane Strub's AP Art History course.

At M-A, there is a clear gender gap in many advanced classes. While female students overwhelmingly lean towards the humanities, males are significantly more likely to take advanced STEM courses.

Part One: STEM 

Senior Sarah Kahle is in Joseph Vanderway's second period AP physics class. Physics is by far her favorite subject, and she is considering a planetary science major in college. As a young woman interested in STEM fields, her gender has played an enormous role in her perception of and relationship to the study of physics. The lack of equal female representation in her advanced math and science classes has affected everything from her participation in class to her self-confidence and performance.

Of the majority- male classroom, she explained, “it makes me less inclined to share, and it means I have fewer friends, fewer people that I'm comfortable with in the class. It means I'm less likely to speak out. I definitely notice that I am less likely to raise my hand. I think having a lot of boys in there just makes me less confident.”

Kahle's lab partner, Alexandra Chang, agrees: “I don't feel like the whole classroom environment is as welcoming because of how gender dominated it is. In [multivariable calculus] especially, it feels like none of the girls really participate." In her physics class, she explained that she and Kahle were often interrupted by their male lab partner in small-group discussions with the teacher. 

“You just feel the weight; it's very subtly overpowering.” -Sarah Kahle, AP Physics Student

Having just seven girls in a class of 30 also affects her interactions with her peers. Kahle noted that she would be uncomfortable in a lab group with only male students; “[the boys] are better at math than I am. I'd feel stupid,” she said.

In addition, she explained that she has never, and would never, approach a male student and tell him that she thought he had made a mistake in his calculations. “A lot of the boys just seem like they know what they're doing more, they don't second-guess themselves as much as a lot of the girls do, or as much as I do,” she observed.

"I always think, 'I don't know what the hell I'm doing'... even if I do." -Sarah Kahle, AP Physics Student

Kahle noted that being one of few girls in her physics class was a challenge that she needed to learn to overcome, or at least cope with. “Being a woman in this field— you can't appear like you don't know what you're doing because you're going to be second-guessed even more than you already are for being a girl. Boys already take any opportunity... to discredit you, more than they would for another boy.”

The graph above includes most AP science and math courses offered at M-A. We chose to analyze advanced classes in this article because we believe that advanced and AP classes require a certain amount of initiative to enroll, and therefore reflect voluntary as opposed to mandatory enrollment. Particularly interesting to note is the drop-off from Calculus BC, which is approximately 44 percent female, to Multivariable Calculus, which is just under 27 percent female. While the class is widely seen as difficult and even intimidating, girls seem to be more affected by this. Senior Kate Mulhern expressed that she avoided the class because she "knew" she would not be successful.

Senior Margaret Chan, who is also enrolled in both AP Physics and Multivariable Calculus, noted that the male students in her physics class can be condescending, most often by oversimplifying complex topics to female peers. Similarly, both Erin Cole and another senior who requested anonymity explained that despite being confident in their abilities, they felt that making a mistake in class might have negative effects for the other girls in Multivariable Calculus. 

Because of this, many young women in STEM fields feel a pressure to be twice as good. They understand that mistakes can often be attributed to their gender in a way that is not the case with male students. 

"Sometimes I feel like if I don't understand something then it’ll reflect poorly on all the girls in my class, or that the guys will assume I don’t get it because I’m one of the few girls." -Anonymous

When asked, Vanderway noted that he tries to ensure class discussions are balanced along gender lines. As for the disparity in enrollment, the physics teacher was visibly distraught. He noted, "I'm missing out on a lot of great students." 

"The girls hold their own."- Joseph Vanderway, AP Physics Teacher

Part Two: Humanities 

Until two years ago, enrollment in Liane Strub's AP Art History class had almost always been at least 40 percent male. Now that the class is limited to one section, excluding any students who do not list it as a first choice, enrollment has shifted to become overwhelmingly female. Strub explained, "I kind of chose this route... I wasn't anticipating the gender imbalance, but what I was anticipating – and what I feel I’ve been rewarded with – is students who truly want to learn about art."

The few boys who are enrolled in advanced humanities classes, however, do not experience the same level of insecurity as girls in STEM fields. Senior Justin Li stated, "I haven't noticed the environment in a classroom is different depending on gender balance. In my Art History class, where there are about five males out of 35 students, the environment feels the same as any of my other classes." Senior Aidan McKay described similar experiences in his AP Spanish Literature class, in which two male students and 17 female students are enrolled, elaborating that his teacher regularly asks for his opinion on issues to gain a different perspective.

Although boys in the humanities do not face overt opposition in class, there are subtler factors that discourage men from pursuing humanities careers. McKay explained, "I get a lot of jokes about how I'm going to be unemployed, and generally I fear there's a lot more pressure to go into STEM than into the liberal arts, but it isn't overtly hostile." In Silicon Valley especially, most high school students feel the pressure to take an interest in STEM subjects. However, this pressure affects men and women differently, as many Americans still believe that men should be the primary source of income for their households, while women's careers can be viewed as less important, or even detrimental to the family unit. 

The stigma around women's careers translates into a devaluation of not only individual women's work through the wage gap, but also of entire fields when they become female-dominated. According to the New York Times, "when women enter fields in greater numbers, pay declines — for the very same jobs that more men were doing before." For example, when women to outnumber men as housekeepers, the average wages fell 21 percent; when the same happened in the field of biology, wages fell 18 percent. On the other hand, when men began to take over as computer programmers, wages and social prestige for the field increased.

These researchers conclude that when men are pressured into STEM fields because they are 'more important,' it is only because those are the fields that are currently dominated by men. The push for male students to study STEM and female students to study the humanities is just a thinly veiled effort to keep men and women separate so we as a society can assign a relative value to their work as a whole without admitting the sexist roots.

The apparent divide in M-A classrooms aligns with similarly disappointing national data. According to a report done by the U.S. Department of Commerce, although women work almost half of all the jobs in the country, they hold less than a quarter of available STEM jobs. The report also noted that women hold a disproportionately low amount of STEM undergraduate degrees. In addition, although women earn more advanced humanities degrees, men are more likely to be hired as managers in humanities fields.

The fact that this segregation of professional fields is present in high schools is destructive to not only the quality of our education but may affect the quality of the work produced in those fields as well. Every time a student is pushed to take AP Physics instead of AP Art History, or Multivariable Calculus instead of AP Literature, they are denied exposure to a variety of subjects and the chance to explore different interests during one of the most crucial times in their academic careers. Strub commented, "If there's one thing that makes me sad about how people choose their courses, it's that they choose courses because they believe that’s the safe thing to do or the right thing to do, and it’s crazy to be narrowing your options this way, this young."