Curricula Structure and How It Affects the Attrition of Women in STEM in the United States, Kuwait, and the Arab World
As noted, the gender composition of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields varies across time and space. Some surprising patterns include stronger gender segregation in some STEM fields in North American and European countries than in poorer and reputedly more gender-traditional societies. The final session of formal workshop presentations, chaired by Hala AlEssa (Kuwait University) and Maria Charles (University of California, Santa Barbara), explored how characteristics of primary and secondary schooling and curricula may influence the gendering of STEM skills and aspirations in diverse contexts. Possibly relevant educational characteristics, some of which were explored during the presentations, include curricular content, graduation requirements, tracking and placement practices, curriculum standardization, single-sex schools, school demographics and resources, and extracurricular programming.
Abrar Al-Alwadhi (Kuwait University), Hessa Amin (FAWSEC Educational Company), and Zaha AlSuwailan (Kuwait University) presented on policies and practices in Kuwait. They were followed by a U.S.-focused panel that consisted of Claudia Buchmann (The Ohio State University), Yingyi Ma (Syracuse University), and Chandra Muller (University of Texas at Austin). A final discussion session wrapped up the workshop.
Abrar Al-Alwadhi, assistant professor of special education at Kuwait University (KU), reiterated a point made throughout the workshop: More females than males major in STEM fields in universities in Kuwait (and other Gulf states). She described the paths to a STEM education in the country, whether through the public KU or through scholarships from the Ministry of Higher Education to local private universities or to study internationally.
Admission to KU requires a high school diploma obtained on either a science or humanities track, an aptitude exam, and a minimum high school grade point average. The percentage of STEM students to the overall student body has dropped since 2010–2011, from 42 percent to 29 percent (see Figure 4-1). This is partly because the overall number of students graduating has increased, but there has been a drop in STEM versus non-STEM graduates. Some factors to explain the decrease include transfer to other majors or to other universities, as well as dropping out from higher education all together. In addition, the workforce in science and research is as low as 12 percent in Kuwait, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates, according to an article in the World Journal of Education.1
Looking at gender, there has been a 70 percent drop in admitted males in STEM subjects since 2010–2011. There has been a 21 percent increase in STEM female versus male students over the past 7 years and a corresponding slight increase in the percentage of females versus males graduating as STEM majors.
The Ministry of Higher Education requires a diploma in either a science or humanities track and a grade point average minimum in its requirements for scholarships. Most of those who receive scholarships major in science. In 2018, for example, 2,159 international scholarships in science and 195 in nonscience were awarded, as well as 2,963 local scholarships in science and 785 in nonscience.
Most international science scholarship students are males, while most local science scholarship students are females. In 2018, 1,434 males received international scholarships in science majors compared with 725 females. Locally, 1,723 females received scholarships to study STEM subjects at private universities within Kuwait, compared with 1,240 males.
1 Islam, S. 2017. Arab women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields: The way forward. World Journal of Education 7(6):12-20. DOI:10.5430/wje.v7n6p12.
Overall, to include KU and scholarship students, 53 percent of admitted students in STEM/science undergraduate majors are female and 47 percent are male. “So it is not the case that there are so many more women than men majoring in STEM,” Al-Alwadhi clarified, “but what we are finding is that most of the women are studying locally and not going internationally, whereas male students are going abroad.”
Women face a number of challenges in climbing the ladder. Those challenges include limited practical opportunities at universities in Kuwait to apply theoretical knowledge, lack of mentoring and networking, social obligations, productivity measured on a male scale, and male students’ stronger belief in their own creative thinking and problem-solving skills. “Programs like KEG [Kuwait’s Engineer Girls] (see Chapter 3) can help overcome these challenges,” Al-Alwadhi concluded.
Hessa Amin, deputy chief executive officer of FAWSEC Educational Company, continued the discussion by describing a recent survey she and colleagues conducted. They posed three research questions: (1) What motivates and influences students to enter into STEM field majors? (2) Do the motivating factors look different for males versus females? (3) Do the
motivating factors look different for students attending private versus public high schools? They conducted a survey with 256 STEM students to ask them to rate their own motivating factors for entering the field, such as salary, prestige, influence by family or other people, and others. For each factor, respondents stated the factor had no effect, was a small factor in choosing the field, or was a major factor in choosing the field. University professors administered the online survey between July and October 2019. Most respondents were from KU and most were female.
“If we look overall, the number one factor was prestige,” Amin noted. “The second was high school subjects the student had taken” (see Figure 4-2). For males, a high salary and prestigious career were the two main factors, with high school subjects slightly lower.
These preferences held for students in public high schools, but those in private high schools indicated a larger role for parents’ influence. One reason for high school subjects not playing a larger role for private high school students may be that they do not have to choose a humanities or science track, while their counterparts in public high school do in 11th and 12th grades.
Analyzing the comments revealed that other motivating factors included personal interest and teacher instruction and/or encouragement. Parents can influence students in a positive way, such as a role model or through support and guidance, or through pressure to follow a STEM field.
In summary, Amin said, prestige was the main motivating factor for students entering STEM field majors. Females are more motivated by their high school studies, while males are more motivated by the financial returns of the field. Parents and teachers can influence students to enter STEM fields using different methods.
Future studies will explore the influence of high school tracking and the acceptance criteria for scholarships and KU on the selection of STEM field majors by women and men.
Zaha AlSuwailan, assistant professor of education at KU, looked further back in students’ education to gender representation in primary school, middle school, and high school textbooks. “Students consciously or unconsciously observe and interpret the social, racial, and economic realities presented in photographs, images, drawings, and characters in their textbooks,” she said. Moreover, research has shown that textbooks,
including the images used, can have an influence on values and social norms transferred to learners. Earlier textbooks in the Arab region emphasized traditional roles for women. However, an analysis of more recent books used in Kuwait’s new curriculum, in light of the increasing numbers of females entering STEM fields, seemed in order.
AlSuwailan performed a content analysis of the Arabic, Islamic Studies, English, and social studies textbooks to identify the different representations of gender in relation to STEM. She looked at authors, the characters portrayed, images, and the plot or narrating story about prominent figures in STEM fields.
At the primary school level, 66 percent of the authors were female. The number decreased to 52 percent for middle school textbooks and to 48 percent for high school textbooks, although at each level, it varies by subject.
Characters mostly appear in the primary-level textbooks. In them, 54 percent of the characters were females and 46 percent were male. (By middle school and especially high school, characters were not present in the textbooks.) Regarding images, at the primary level, females were represented in 41 percent of the images versus men at 59 percent. In middle school, although the total number of images are far fewer, there were more female images than male. Finally, most plots appeared in the middle and high school textbooks. In middle school, females were in 40 percent of the plots, and in high school, 60 percent. An example was a middle school English textbook with an article about the U.S. Civil War nurse Clara Barton, which contains the explicit message that “women can succeed in any job.”
In addition, images showed women in lab coats and in engineering capacities. Examples of notable women, both Kuwaiti and from other countries, are also present in the textbooks. To summarize, AlSuwailan said, “the textbooks in Arabic, English, and social and Islamic studies now portray the role of females in STEM fields in the 21st century.”
The discussion session focused on similarities between the two countries, including how different factors can influence selection of a major. Textbooks can be encouraging, but barriers such as customs and family influence remain, one participant said. The role of prestige in choosing a major may explain the gap between the number of women studying STEM and those moving up in the field, another commented. She said she knows several women who majored in engineering for prestige reasons but are working in other fields.
“Only those who really have a passion are ready to face the challenges and compete with men to advance to the higher ranks,” she commented. But another participant, noting the existence of the so-called glass ceiling in the United States at the very top, countered, “I would caution on focusing on passion alone in moving up when there are structural barriers that are much more severe at a higher level.” Finally, it was noted that some medical fields tend to attract more women, such as pediatrics, family medicine, and obstetrics and gynecology in both countries. A World Health Organization World Health Study of the global health workforce shows that women make up 70 percent of overall workers but only 25 percent of leaders.2
Regarding the incentives for females and males to enter STEM fields, a participant noted that passion and prestige tend to be subjective and can change over time. In contrast, she noted, financial status is more quantitative. If finances are the main motivator, “maybe this is one reason why males continue in the workforce.” Culturally, males may feel more responsible to be financially secure than women, she posited. In many Islamic countries, one participant said, girls enter STEM fields that have a reputation of being challenging to show they can succeed in them. “That is a pattern in many developing countries. Young girls are fighters, they want to prove they can do it,” she said.
Listening to the data, a participant observed, the question is what to do next. “As I see it, the environment is filled with structural barriers,” she said, such as the larger numbers of Kuwaiti males who can study internationally, which could be related to individual girls’ choices or family expectations that girls remain closer to home. She added, “The idea of choice and ‘you can make it happen if you want to’ means that only a select few get to have the opportunities.” The role of individual choice versus structural barriers plays out in different cultures and contexts, participants agreed.
ALIGNING SCIENTIFIC ACHIEVEMENT AND FUTURE EXPECTATIONS FOR STEM CAREERS: ROLE OF CURRICULAR STANDARDIZATION
Claudia Buchmann, professor and chair of the department of sociology at Ohio State University, explained that 48 percent of students who begin
2 Delivered by women, led by men: A gender and equity analysis of the global health and social workforce. 2019. Geneva: World Health Organization. https://www.who.int/hrh/resources/health-observer24/en.
STEM in U.S. colleges and universities either transfer to a non-STEM subject or drop out. A lack of preparation in science leads in part to these high rates of departure, even among those who enter higher education with a high degree of interest in the disciplines. “It is valuable in this context with this problem to think about how to increase the alignment between science performance and students’ aspirations,” she said. Buchmann and her colleague examined 27 industrialized countries to determine if the degree of standardization of the curriculum is related to the mean and distribution of science achievement, and to the alignment between science performance and aspirations. They also looked at gender gaps.
Curricular standardization is defined as the degree to which students are exposed to the same curriculum within a country. Of the 27 countries they studied, 7 are centrally mandated, 16 have a centrally mandated curriculum that allows for regional adaptation, and 4 (including the United States) have no centrally mandated curriculum.
Buchmann and her colleague posited that standardization may be beneficial in terms of performance and in reducing gender gaps in achievement and aspirations. In these standardized systems, all students are exposed to the same knowledge of science and math. They cannot opt out. By all students taking these courses before they enter college, they gather valuable feedback about their performance in math and science relative to their peers. High science achievers may gain added confidence about pursuing a STEM major. “This may be particularly valuable for the adolescent girls with confidence issues or the tendency for some girls to not think they are as strong as they are in science,” she said. In countries with less standardized curricula, such as the United States, students are getting more variable and weaker feedback.
Buchmann used the Programme for International Student Assessment, or PISA, 2006 dataset, conducted by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.3 Widely used in comparative research, previous iterations did not include any Arab countries, although more recent versions do, which will provide potential for future comparative research. Overall, science scores are significantly higher and more consistent in countries with standardized curricula, such as Finland and Japan, as well as other factors such as teacher quality and economic development. The evidence shows that curricular standardization is associated with higher science achievement, especially among girls. Looking at the subset of students
who indicated science as a career or major, student achievement is better aligned with expectations to pursue a STEM major or career in countries with higher levels of standardization, although the relationship between standardization and alignment is slightly weaker for girls than for boys, which is an area for further study. The United States trails many industrialized countries in science performance. This study suggests this gap is due, in part, to the lack of standardization in the science curriculum across U.S. states and school districts, Buchmann concluded.
Yingyi Ma, associate professor of sociology at Syracuse University, looked at the process of underrepresentation by women in STEM fields, when it starts, if it is monotonic (underrepresented from precollege years, or does it start well represented and then become more of a retention issue?), and the switching of majors from STEM to non-STEM. To answer these questions, she looked at datasets from the National Education Longitudinal Studies (NELS), Pathways Through College data collected by the Wisconsin Center for Education Research, and her own work on Chinese international students in the United States over the past 7 years.
NELS data look at three points in time—high school seniors and their expected major, second year in college, and then bachelor’s degree. In these data, the gender gap is largest in high school, when more males than females expressed the plan to major in STEM. Females, once they decided to major in a STEM field, are slightly more likely to persist. Overall, however, there is both gender and racial disparity in entry into STEM fields, as well as variation between life science and other STEM majors (see Figure 4-3). “By taking an intersectionality perspective, more complexity emerged, and breaking STEM fields into subfields also brings more complexity,” Ma observed.
In the Wisconsin Center for Education Research data, which is more recent than NELS, women were more likely to switch majors than men were (in both directions, from STEM to non-STEM and vice versa). One mechanism to focus on is the role of advising about their majors. Women are more likely than men to receive this type of advising. Science identity also played a role in changing majors. If a person “sees themselves as a science person,” he or she is more likely to stay in or switch to a STEM major, Ma said. For students who have received advising, an increase in science identity leads to significantly higher probability of changing to a STEM
major, controlling for such variables as parental education, high school coursework, and college experience.
Ma conducted a mixed-method study of a new wave of self-funded Chinese undergraduates in the United States. Part of her work compares college major choice by these students with their U.S. peers and with their peers in China. Among the findings, more are likely to major in STEM in China than in the United States. Close to 50 percent of Chinese international students choose STEM in the United States. Double majors are increasingly prevalent, and the Chinese students tend to be “spanners” with a STEM and non-STEM (such as humanities) major.
In summary, reviewing the NELS and Wisconsin Center for Education Research data, as well as her own work, shows the following:
- Affective factors, such as expectation to major in STEM and science identity, are key to women’s entry into STEM.
- The largest gender gap observed was the gap in expected college major, as measured in high school. College provides a second chance, particularly through advising and science identity.
- Study of Chinese international students shows that their entry into STEM, switching out of it, and double majoring are influenced by both American and Chinese educational contexts.
Chandra Muller, professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin, reported on some findings from the High School and Beyond Midlife Survey. It began with 27,000 high school students in the early 1980s and followed up with them in 2014. “My framework is that stratification starts in high school, continues with postsecondary study, and then people live gendered adulthoods.” Rather than look at young adulthood and entry level, she said she moves to midlife, a critical time in the United States to make or break in terms of retirement well-being. This generation faced the technological revolution of the 1990s, after they had graduated, and had to adapt to a totally new workforce environment and economy.
The National Center for Education Statistics notes changes in trends in high school curriculum when comparing the class of 1990 with the class of 2009. Students in high schools can follow three general routes: standard, midlevel, and rigorous, with the rigorous route encompassing precalculus or higher, as well as biology, chemistry, and physics. Overall, more high school students followed either a midlevel or rigorous track in 2009 compared with those in 1990. Another important trend is the number of students taking math throughout high school, broken down by gender. Using their own datasets, in 1982, more than one-third (35 percent) of females did not take mathematics their junior and senior years, but the number was less than 10 percent (and slightly better than boys) in 2013. Math level has been found to be the single best predictor of bachelor’s degree completion and also predicts science success, because it is a crucial building block.
To look at midlife, Muller and her colleagues looked at three STEM occupational areas: life sciences and health science, physical science and engineering (PSE), and mathematics and computer science. Men and women with PSE degrees have a 20 percent advantage of being in a PSE
occupation at midlife, and men are about 5 percent more likely to be in managerial positions. Women with a PSE degree have similar but smaller advantages over their peers with other postsecondary degrees. Mathematics and computer science degrees lead to these occupations, especially for men.
Looking at the American Community Survey and the High School and Beyond Midlife Survey, men hold a 30 percent wage advantage over women. Choice of occupation can explain only some of the gap. When looking at men and women in the same occupation, the gap narrows but remains. The High School and Beyond Midlife Survey shows a larger gap when factoring in family background, high school studies, and other factors. In fact, women without a strong STEM background fare worse in wages related to men.
“Remember that the economy has changed, and it will not stay static,” Muller said. “I urge us to look at a broader concern about the significance of STEM. People with STEM training could be more protected.” Reviewing trends from 1980 to 2008 shows that the middle of the wage distribution has declined, with fewer jobs in the middle, as manifested by the decline of the middle class. Job growth has occurred at the lower and higher levels. Those who worked in the middle area of the past will move into higher-income or lower-income jobs. A STEM background may provide access to higher-paying occupations, although some lower-skill jobs also use technology.
“Bad job” characteristics include part-time work, low wages, and no retirement benefits. Muller reported on a study that looked at the relationship between having a math background (defined as Algebra 2 or above) and a bachelor’s degree or above with having these bad job characteristics. Women without a mathematics background or bachelor’s degree had the greatest number of these characteristics at midlife, while men with a bachelor’s degree were least affected. The study also found that women with a bachelor’s degree did not fare much better than men without one.
The series of studies led Muller and colleagues to make the following conclusions and raise priority questions for future study:
- The canonical STEM pipeline is not supported by evidence. Just because a woman has a STEM degree, she may not be doing better at midlife than a man without one.
- College preparatory high school coursework, especially in STEM, has been at parity since the 1980s and now favors women. Yet women are not entering STEM fields. The gender gap cannot be
- explained by fields of study in higher education or by early adult work and occupations. Thus, beyond education, what processes are producing this gender inequality across workforce outcomes?
- STEM skills appear to be important for women across the labor force, and STEM curriculum is protective, especially for women. This raises questions about the role of STEM education in women’s well-being and ability to adapt to economic transformation over the life course and especially as they age.
- Gender inequality is intersectional. What is the role of STEM for women and men at the intersection of other dimensions of inequality, such as race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status?
In considering some of the reasons that U.S. science achievement is not higher, it was noted that the U.S. population is extremely heterogeneous, and the educational system is highly decentralized in how it is organized and funded.
A participant commented that the midlife gap discussed by Muller exists in Kuwait, too. We need to collect data to understand the reasons women drop out. Having a better sense of the contributions women have made in STEM would also be useful, another suggested, such as published papers, patents, influence in the media, and other measures.
A major challenge is the need for more transparency. A participant noted gender data for countries in the Arab region are often missing in international datasets, such as those compiled by the United Nations. Regarding implementation, a participant noted that the National Science Foundation ADVANCE Program promoted women’s participation and queried how such a program could work in Kuwait. Science policy is thriving in the United States, she noted, and wondered about a larger role for scientists in policy in the Arab world.
Looking at the region, participants made several points. First, one participant observed that Kuwait plays a strong role in STEM education for those from other Arab countries, which may be useful to examine. Second, the American University of Beirut is trying to address the low numbers of women faculty by creating a senior-level position, namely, vice president for diversity, with decision-making power to lead efforts for diversity. The American University of Beirut is also creating a gender-sensitive data management system that deans in the separate colleges will be required to
provide. “When you have the data, you can track progress and understand what is going on,” she said.
A participant commented about the mentorship, grant-writing, advice about establishing a lab, and other programs at the University of California, Los Angeles, in the United States, where she was before coming to KU. This could be useful for new female and male faculty, she suggested. Suggestions of themes for a future workshop include retention, the role of family, ideas about gender roles, and cultural beliefs. Others included identifying national-level research plans and policies that could help inform career advice to students to understand the growing areas of demand. New career paths outside of academia would also be a good topic. Hearing from students would be valuable at a future workshop, another person suggested. “How do they see the future? What obstacles do they see in their way?” she said. Several participants also suggested the importance of finding ways to include men and to make men aware of the issues and research brought up during the workshop.