Segregation, Stereotypes, and STEM

ABSTRACT. Scientific, technical, engineering, and mathematical (STEM) occupations are strongholds of gender segregation in the contemporary United States. While many Americans regard this segregation as natural and inevitable, closer examination reveals a great deal of variability in the gendering of STEM fields across time, space, and demographic groups. This article assesses how different theoretical accounts accord with the available evidence on the gender composition of scientific and technical fields. We find most support for accounts that allow for a dynamic interplay between individual-level traits and the broader sociocultural environments in which they develop. The existing evidence suggests, in particular, that Western cultural stereotypes about the nature of STEM work and STEM workers and about the intrinsic qualities of men and women can be powerful drivers of individual aptitudes, aspirations, and affinities. We offer an illustrative catalog of stereotypes that support women’s STEM-avoidance and men’s STEM-affinity, and we conclude with some thoughts on policy implications.

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