“Mathematical Confidence” and Women in STEM

By Roberta Attanasio, Forever Leaders Editor

STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) jobs are often referred to as the jobs of the future. According to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, there is currently a mismatch between the supply and growing demand for workers skilled in STEM. While economic projections indicate that there could be 2.4 million unfilled STEM jobs by 2018, it is well recognized that women represent a largely untapped STEM talent pool.

Indeed, women are underrepresented in STEM, and encouraging more women to enter STEM careers could help to fill the gap between supply and demand. However, women are underrepresented not only because of an insufficient number of women entering the STEM trajectory path, or STEM pipeline, but also because this pipeline is broken at major junctions—from middle school to high school, from high school to college, from starting college to completing a STEM degree, and so on. Although recent research suggests that the broken (or leaky) pipeline metaphor is now wrong for nearly all postsecondary pathways in science and engineering, other junctions could still be underlining a “leaky” situation for a variety of reasons.


Photo credit: andresmh, CC BY-SA 2.0

Now, results from a new study show that women are 1.5 times more likely to leave the STEM pipeline after entering college because of Calculus I, the first in a sequences of introductory calculus courses that college students take as a necessary first step on the way to obtaining a STEM degree. Indeed, it is widely known that introductory math courses, such as Calculus I, are major obstacles in pursuing a STEM career, and influence students’ decisions to leave STEM majors.

For the study, researchers asked students across the country about their interest in and intention to pursue a STEM degree, their test scores, preparation, learning experience, plans and backgrounds—before taking Calculus I and after. Students either persisted or switched out of the calculus sequence after taking Calculus I. Students who persisted were considered as continuing to pursue a STEM major, whereas those who switched out were considered as dissuaded from STEM disciplines.

Students who switched out after Calculus I were asked why they decided against taking Calculus II. Most of the possible explanations fell fairly equally across the genders (too many classes, not needed for major, etc.)—except for one: “I do not believe I understand the ideas of Calculus I well enough to take Calculus II.” Of those who had been planning to major in a STEM area, 35 percent of women who switched out listed this as a reason, whereas only 14 percent of men did. However, fewer than one in five of the departing students of either gender reported that their Calculus I grade was actually too low to continue. These results suggest that a major factor in women’s decision to leave a STEM path after Calculus I isn’t ability, but confidence in their ability—in this case “mathematical confidence”—or its lack thereof.

Bailey Fosdick, one of the study authors, said in a press release: “When women are leaving, it is because they don’t think they can do it—not because they can’t do it.”

The study results also indicate that if women persisted at the same rate as men starting in Calculus I, the number of women entering the STEM workforce would increase by 75%. The authors recognize that it is preferable to increase girls’ and women’s interest in STEM at all life stages. However, they point out that targeting efforts at women—to improve their chances to do well in college calculus and beyond, would increase the incoming general STEM workforce (men and women) by 20%, thus helping to meet the growing demand for STEM-skilled workers.

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  1. In my opinion, confidence plays a major role while pursuing or completing math problems. Especially coming from someone who just completed their bachelor’s degree in mathematics, confidence is a crucial aspect in any math course. I believe women lack that confidence in math course; therefore, we should work against the odds and motivate women to be better and encourage them to conquer their fears in mathematics. Putting yourself in an situation where you are lacking will make you grow as a person and increase those skills as well.

  2. I’ve read about a similar phenomenon, but rather than it being women who leave STEM fields because of a lack of confidence, it was millennials in general. I feel like we don’t encourage persistence after failure enough in society, for both men and women. My introductory chemistry and biology courses were far more challenging to me than my senior science courses, because they made me a better student and because sometimes it’s the basic concepts that are the most difficult to grasp.
    We really should emphasize that just because sometime does not come easily, it does not have to mean that the field isn’t for you. We should also emphasize that roadblocks or even failing a course do not entail failure in an entire field.

  3. I can relate to this article, because I am one of those women. I took Calculus I in high school and struggled miserably. As a result, my GPA decrease dramatically and so did my confidence. At the time, I was considering a career as a computer engineer. I took many computer classes, so I thought calculus would be a breeze. I was wrong. Nevertheless, my adviser enrolled me into a Calculus II class. I stayed in the class despite my experience with Calculus I, and I actually excelled. I was truly ecstatic and my self confidence rose significantly. That experience showed me that no matter the obstacle we can still be over comers. We can still excel in areas that we have not mastered. I believe women need to learn that putting oneself in situations were they lack skill often grows that skill. We need to believe in ourselves that we can achieve whatever we put our minds too, just like men.

  4. The study conducted where they asked why students dropped out of Calculus I and 35% of women did because they felt unqualified compared to only 14% of men who did the same made me think of both a guest speaker we had in Women Lead and Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In book. It put into another context the idea of how women constantly feel like they must have at least 90% of the qualifications in order to apply for a job, whereas a man will apply even when he only has 50%. I believe women have to have more confidence and power through, without having an overwhelming fear of rejection that stops them from getting done what they need to do. This is something I have been working on this semester, actually. I applied for an internship even though I was only about 80% qualified and almost did not. Right when I was about to just not apply and move on I thought of all the men that are less qualified than I was that where applying, and figured I might as well try. Who knows, I could be the most qualified out of the bunch even though I am only at 80%. I also think women giving up is from a fear of not being the best or getting rejected. I think a lot of times women are told to only do what they are good at, while men get to explore a variety of things that they may or may not fail at, but overall get to learn something new. Women should be more motivated, empowered, and encouraged to do and take advantages of all opportunities that are presented to them, as men do.

  5. I struggled with math all through my life. I really didn’t like literature or social studies. However, I excelled in those topics because that what was expected of me by society. I have came to the conclusion that it was not that I could not do math, but I didn’t have the support system nor motivation to put forth my best in that subject. I have had teachers say to me that I should be a teacher, nurse, etc. My goal of being a doctor to them was so far fetched. Also, they set the bias of boys being better at science & math whereas girls being better at literature & social science. When I went to college, everything changed. My understanding of math reached another level. I believe it’s because I didn’t have that constant fear of not being able to comprehend the topic and I developed more confidence in myself. I didn’t have anyone putting my abilities down. I also knew I had a goal to reach and I couldn’t let anything get in the way. It took me 14 years to get to this point, so why give up now? I asked myself : “Why can’t you do math?” “What’s holding you back? “What aren’t you understanding?” I pushed myself to the limit; limits that my teachers never thought I could reach.

    • This is so well-articulated, Brianna. I came to the conclusion that I could not do math in elementary school, and I have vivid memories of giving up in math classes due to lack of confidence, not lack of skill. From an early age, I would openly admit that math is my worst subject. This was true, but only because I refused to put my energy into this “boy dominated” subject that I thought was only suitable for the most intelligent people (mostly boys). I wonder how much better I would be at math now if I had the confidence to pursue it when I was younger, because my analytical style of thinking seems to coincide with mathematics.
      I think that having a strong support system is vital in developing a child and allowing her to flourish. The only reason I ever learned my multiplication tables was because of my father, who dedicated hours every night to helping me understand little pieces of math. I had zero confidence in my ability, so he stepped in to give me some confidence because he believed in me. I still rely on those memories of his unrelenting confidence in my potential today.

    • I agree with you. When i was in high school, I absolutely hated math and struggled with it. However, when I enter college, I began to actually understand what was going on in my math classes and began to fall in love with it. I actually made math my major. I believe the motivation to actually want to learn the material is what holding people back. In addition, I believe the passion has to be there because math is a subject that takes practice. You have to do a problem multiple times before fully understanding the concepts. If you dont have the passion to learn, then you will not take the time out to learn the materials.

  6. It is so unfortunate that the drop rate with women in mathematics has nothing to do with skill but confidence in that skill. I believe this phenomenon can be seen across all women in all professions. It is our lack of confidence that holds us back. My mind goes directly to the imposter syndrome. The constant fear or thought that we are not where we are supposed to be. It is because we are outnumbered by our male counterparts, gender stereotypes, and our innate reaction to be modest and accommodating. We are so afraid that if we aim too high that we might fail and, consequently, solidify the stereotypes about our gender. However, it is crucial that we dispose of this fear of failure because more often than not, we are going to succeed. And the more women we get into these male-dominated professions, the better examples we can set for the generations that come after us. We are all already pretty good about sharing our self-doubts with other women, it is time that we quit just lending an ear and begin lending a push. Feeling inferior is all in our heads and if we can get each other to free ourselves from the self-imposed limitations, we might be able to make some progress in shattering them.

    • I can understand why women don’t have confidence in their math skills. Once they show that they are not doing well in this area society’s immediate response is to say that we are not suited for a job in the sciences. I’m a computer science major and math is a big part of my course load both directly and indirectly. I did not do well on the GSU math placement test and had to start off in college algebra. My (female) freshman advisor looked me in face and told me I was never going to graduate college if I did not change my major because you need certain math prerequisites before you can take some computer science courses. I felt discouraged because computer science was all I ever wanted to do and if I wasn’t equipped for it I wondered why I was even in college.

      I talked to my older sister about it and she recommend that I go see her (male) advisor. He took the evaluation my first advisor gave me ripped it up and told me to never go see her again. He walked me through all the courses that I needed to take and when to take the math so that I could get caught up. I took college algebra, pre-cal, cal 1, cal 2, and math 3030 which is a math for computer science majors with a mixture of cal 3, stat, and linear algebra. I aced all these classes and my confidence boosted as a result. It is not that women can’t do math, because we can. We just need someone there to encourage us when times get hard. It is unfortunate that it will not always be another female and that they will sometimes even put us down but at the end of the day we need to believe that we are just as smart as any guy and believe in ourselves first. After all, if you don’t believe in yourself how can you expect someone else to.

  7. This topic is one that holds very true for me, but in this case, it is not Calculus but Physics. When I was in high school, freshman year, I took an honors Physics course. Although I did well in the class, it was a very hard class. I had to work ten times harder and every concept was a struggle to understand. After this class, I vowed to never follow into a career in science, not because I did poorly in the class, but because I felt this was a representation of what a career in science would be like for me. Thankfully, I had other influences in my life that pushed me back onto the path leading me to Neuroscience.

    The problem depicted in my case is the same mentioned in the above blog post, which is that many women get turned off from the Sciences due to a lack of confidence and do not get that second nudge as I did. Women can and have performed well in these classes, but they lack the development of the confidence to carry on afterward. This lack of confidence to pursue a career in STEM is keeping the number of women in these fields low, resulting in minimal success for the women’s movement to bring about equality in the workforce, in this case, STEM fields.

    The goal is to begin at the early stages of a woman’s journey, as mentioned in the second paragraph of the blog post. Teachers and mentors need to be reassuring young woman that although the sciences are hard, they are doable. They need to know that they are not the only ones who struggle in these particular areas, but many people do. Young women need to be made aware that just because a subject is hard, does not mean it will not be understood. It just means that it requires a little more work. Women need to be taught confidence as well the course materials if an increase of women in STEM is to be seen. If we can instill confidence early on, women will not get discouraged at their struggle, but see it as an opportunity to grow and learn more.

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