A Foundation for Understanding Gender Differences (part 1 in a series)

A Foundation for Understanding Gender Differences (part 1 in a series)

Photo: Mark Schar

First in a four-part series, "Closing the Gender Gap in Your STEM Classroom," that bridges research to practice by providing you with seven key practices to make your STEM courses more inclusive.

The original paper upon which the series is based is “Research-Informed Practices for Inclusive Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) Classrooms: Strategies for Educators to Close the Gender Gap,” by Scutt, Gilmartin, Sheppard, and Brunhaver.  It can be downloaded from the American Society for Engineering Education’s 2013 Annual Conference Proceedings at http://www.asee.org/public/conferences/20/papers/7150/view.

Understanding Gender Differences Overview

The underrepresentation and attrition of women students in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields is a widely acknowledged, complex problem for which solutions will be multi-faceted. While a large body of research examines factors that influence girls’ and women’s experiences in these fields, the most recent research on gender’s relation to STEM classes yields valuable, concrete practices that boost women students’ interest and retention. This series bridges research to practice by providing you with seven key practices to make your STEM courses more inclusive.

The seven key practices are unified by:

  • Ease of implementation - The suggested practices require limited new infrastructure or staff, if any.
  • Novelty  - The research was published since 2000.
  • Potential – The practices will not only retain more scientists and engineers, they will create better ones.
  • Flexibility - Each practice can be applied to improve a single course or more broadly implemented over several courses.

Benefits of Inclusive Classrooms

In this context, an “inclusive classroom” is a classroom that supports the growth of young women scientists and engineers.

  1. Sheer numbers: Retaining more women in STEM while maintaining the numbers of men results in more engineers and scientists for the future. This is important for the U.S. to maintain competitiveness in the global economy that is becoming increasingly technology-driven.
  2. Better representation: A more diverse set of scientists and engineers can bring new perspectives on identifying problems and designing solutions. This diversity of ideas is crucial to innovation and to equitable consideration of the needs of women and men (Gendered Innovations in Science, Health & Medicine, and Engineering, 2013).
  3. Genuine fulfillment: Without the negative effect of social norms or stereotypes, some students may be more inclined to study what truly interests them, resulting in their greater satisfaction and fulfillment.

Gender analysis in STEM education provides us with a framework for thorough analysis of the differences between women’s and men’s “gender roles, activities, needs, and opportunities” (The World Bank, 2011) in the classroom. The goal is to achieve equity rather than equality in that gender equity accounts for the differences in women’s and men’s experiences, needs, and concerns. Before we jump in to the key practices, we must establish a foundation in a few gender analysis terms.

Sex vs. Gender: A Critical Attribution

Is there a difference between “sex” and “gender”? Absolutely.


Refers to…

Associated with…


biological and physical characteristics

“male” and “female”


Socially and culturally constructed roles, norms, and attributes

“masculine” and “feminine”

In much of the research I’ll be presenting, study participants are classified by sex, but differences in the dependent variable (achievement, self-efficacy, etc.) are attributed to gender.

While this may seem like a subtlety, being clear in how we attribute differences between men and women students has huge implications for eliminating the gender gap. To stop perpetuating these differences, we must make clear to educators, parents, and students that they tend to be gender-based, not sex-based, that is, not natural and inherent.

Once we place the emphasis on the role of social and cultural factors (“gender-based”), we start to shift the attitude to one of empowerment and transformation in the education system and society.

Examine the use of “sex” and “gender” around you, and make sure that you are critical of your own use of the terms.

Defining the Intangible - influential constructs in achievement and persistence

The table below summarizes three core constructs that will appear in the research behind the seven practices. They are measures of a sense of belonging, enjoyment, and/or competency, and have been found to play a highly influential role in men’s and women’s achievement and persistence in STEM fields.


Functional definition


For a given subject, identity is a compilation of level of interest, self-assessment of competency, and how much recognition one feels with regard to it (Hazari, 2010).


A student’s perceptions about their ability in a certain area (such as science) and the feelings of self-worth they associate with this ability (Britner and Pajares, 2006).


Self-efficacy, part of Bandura’s Social Cognitive Theory (Bandura, 1977), is an individual’s level of confidence in their ability to act effectively to perform a specific task. For example, science self-efficacy is “students’ belief in their ability to succeed in science tasks, courses, or activities” (Britner and Pajares, 2006).

Conditional Effects: Contributing to Gender Differences

In order to create more inclusive courses, we must move beyond describing gender differences towards understanding the factors that might explain the differences. Therefore we must consider how the environment creates and affects gender differences, and how it may affect men and women differently.

The research you’ll encounter in this series presents not only how students’ educational experiences vary by gender, but also how the impact of a single educational experience differs for women and men. This is known as a “conditional” or “interaction” effect, which occurs when the influence of an environment or experience differs for different groups of people. Understanding conditional effects can help us glean new insights into particularly effective or important environments for women that may be less salient otherwise.

Coming up:  Part 2 of 4 will discuss four skills to emphasize, and Part 3 of 4 will discuss three scaffolds to implement in your courses. Part 4 will conclude the series by revisiting the actions you can take and providing direction should you seek further information.

Helena Scutt is a senior majoring in Biomechanical Engineering and coterming in Mechanical Engineering. She spent the summer of 2012 in Dr. Sheri Sheppard’s Designing Education Lab researching gender in engineering education. She is currently working on optogenetics in Dr. Scott Delp’s Neuromuscular Biomechanics Lab. She has been Captain of the Varsity Sailing Team for two years and is on the US Sailing Team Sperry Top-Sider.

Works Cited

(2013). Retrieved 2013, from Gendered Innovations in Science, Health & Medicine, and Engineering: http://genderedinnovations.stanford.edu/index.html

Bandura, A. (1977). Self-efficacy: toward a unifying theory of behavioral change. Psychological Review , 84 (2), 191.

Britner, S. & Pajares, F. (2006). Sources of science self-efficacy beliefs of middle school students. Journal of Research in Science Teaching , 43 (5), 485-499.

Hazari, Z. S. (2010). Connecting high school physics experiences, outcome expectations, physics identity, and physics career choice: A gender study. Journal of Research in Science Teaching , 47 (8), 978-1003.

The World Bank. (2011). Gender Analysis. Retrieved 2013, from The World Bank: http://go.worldbank.org/XKLV2D86N0


On the other side of STEM, as scientists do research, gender matters too. STEM research must study more females, says Stanford's Londa Schiebinger: some progress is being made, but we need much more. See Schiebinger's piece in the March 5 issue of Nature at http://www.nature.com/news/scientific-research-must-take-gender-into-account-1.14814