The largest body of research with regard to access and equity in science learning focuses on gender with specific attention to underrepresentation of women. Gender can be viewed, and ultimately studied, from a range of perspectives. The prevailing view of gender in the field is that it is not a fixed attribute, but it is constructed in social interactions (Murphy and Whitelegg, 2006). Gender is only one component of diversity, and, despite the overlapping similarities among women, issues of ethnicity, class, culture, and the like all contribute to socialization and play a role in learning.
Statistically, a case can be made that gender impacts career success and pursuits in ways that are inconsistent with women’s level of achievement. Although there is convincing evidence that gender does not define capability, its impact on skill and capacity building is unclear.
Statistics suggest continued areas of inequity, but overall, there are great improvements in science participation by gender. Recent statistics suggest that, since 2000, women have earned more science and engineering bachelors degrees than men (National Science Foundation, 2007). However, the numbers are less favorable when separated by area of science. For example, the gap in male and female degree earners in computer sciences has widened over the past few years (National Science Foundation, 2007). In their review of research on gender differences in mathematics and science learning, Halpern and colleagues (2007) found small mean differences between male and female science achievement and ability in comparison to the large variance within male and within female scores. The variance in male scores is consistently greater than that found in female scores, leading to more men than women scoring in the highest and lowest quartiles in tests of science achievement and ability.
In general, the differences between male and female participation in science have been decreasing over the past 20 years (National Science Foundation, 2002). Women constituted a greater percentage of science graduate students in 2004 than in 1994, growing from 37 to 42 percent. This varied by field of science. In 2004, women made up 74 percent of the graduate students in psychology, 56 percent in biology, and 53 percent in social sciences. However, women accounted for only 22 percent of graduate students in engineering and 27 percent in computer sciences, with a 30-45 percent representation in most other science fields (National Science Foundation, 2007). Disparity in participation in science increases further along the educational continuum (Lawler, 2002; Mervis, 1999; Sax, 2001). Seymour and Hewitt (1997) found that undergraduate women were more likely to leave the sciences than similarly achieving men.