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Girls Likelier to Major in Science Field if High School Had Women STEM Teachers

Guest blog by Liana Heitin. Originally posted at Curriculum Matters.

White female students are more likely to pursue STEM fields in college if they attended a high school with a high proportion of female math and science teachers, according to a recent study. The results were not as conclusive for black female students. 

Researchers from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and Duke University looked at a sample of 16,300 students who attended secondary school in North Carolina and went on to a college through the University of North Carolina system. The study, "Demographic Characteristics of High School Math and Science Teachers and Girls' Success in STEM," published in the journal Social Problems, focused on how the race and gender of teachers affect students' decisions to pursue further science, technology, engineering, and math education. 

The authors found "a positive and significant association between the proportion of female math and science teachers in high school and young women's probability of declaring a STEM major." There was no link between teachers' gender and the probability of picking a STEM major for young men. 

The race of the teachers did not affect either young men's or women's pursuits, the study found. 

But when viewed in light of students' races, there were differences. White girls were more likely to declare or graduate with a STEM major if they attended a high school with a higher proportion of female math and science teachers. "We argue that female math and science teachers, as potential passive and active representatives of white girls' interests in math and science within the school bureaucracy, can open STEM fields of study to white girls in ways that male math and science teachers may not," the authors write. 

For African-American girls, there was no significant association between the proportion of female teachers and STEM outcomes. (The sample sizes precluded looking at this for students of other races.) Because the sample of black girls was much smaller than that of white girls in the study, it's possible the findings "are not entirely conclusive." It's also possible "that the presence of female math and science teachers—even co-ethnic female math and science teachers—may not be sufficient to offset the chilly climate that young women of color might face in science and math classrooms," the authors write. 

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