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High School Environments, STEM Orientations, and the Gender Gap in Science and Engineering Degrees

Legewie, Joscha; DiPrete, Thomas A.

This study examines two important and related dimensions of the persisting gender gap in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) bachelor degrees: First, the life-course timing of a stable gender gap in STEM orientation, and second, variations in the gender gap across high schools. We build on existing psychological and sociological gender theories to develop a theoretical argument about the development of STEM orientations during adolescence and the potential influence of the local high school environment on the formation of STEM orientations by females and males. Using the National Education Longitudinal Study (NELS), we then decompose the gender gap in STEM bachelor degrees and show that the solidification of the gender gap in STEM orientations is largely a process that occurs during the high school years. Far from being a fixed attribute of adolescent development, however, we find that the size of the gender gap in STEM orientation is quite sensitive to local high school influences; going to school at a high school that is supportive of a positive orientation by females towards math and science can reduce the gender gap in STEM bachelor degrees by 25% or more.


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October 5, 2011