Is It Calculus' Fault?

Examining the lack of women in STEM careers

1 million.

This is the projected number of additional STEM graduates the American workforce will need by 2022.

Yes, you read that right. In the next six years, the U.S. will need to employ 1 million science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) graduates in order to meet the demands of American industry. This number was derived from reports analyzed by the U.S. President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST).

But the startling statistics don’t stop there:

  • Only a quarter of U.S. college graduates entering STEM careers in the U.S. are women.
  • Only 1 in 10 physicists and astronomers are women.
  • Only 8 percent of mechanical engineers are women.

Why the gender gap?

A recent Huffington Post article shows that girls in grades K–12 show the same amount of interest in STEM as their male counterparts. But as females jet off to college, their interest in STEM subjects plummets.

Chart showing interest and participation in STEM pipeline over time
Chart: Courtesy PLOS One

Why? One study suggests that Calculus I is the culprit: The odds of a woman being dissuaded from continuing in calculus is 1.5 times greater than that for a man. And it’s not because women are stumped by calculus; it’s that they lack the confidence to succeed in furthering their calculus studies. When the study’s researchers exit-polled students who completed their Calculus I course, they found that 35 percent of women reported “I do not believe I understand the ideas of Calculus I well enough to take Calculus II.” Only 14% of males cited this reason for transitioning to a non-STEM major.

When a female elects to not take Calculus II, she is effectively leaving the STEM pipeline. “Our findings indicate that if women persisted in STEM at the same rate as men starting in Calculus I, the number of women entering the STEM workforce would increase by 75 percent,” the study reports. And wouldn’t that help alleviate the expected 1 million STEM graduate shortfall?

Are there other factors at play other than the dreaded Calculus II? Do women fear a lower grade resulting in a lower GPA? Do they set higher standards of success based off of previous math accomplishments in high school? Do they succumb to conventional gender expectations for women to start a family in their 30s? After all, how can that possibly be achieved with the high demands of a job in STEM?

Implicit Bias

With help from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, we can add in the effect of implicit bias on women’s under-representation in STEM positions. Implicit bias, as this council defines, is “activated automatically and unintentionally, functioning primarily outside of a person’s conscious awareness.” This is in contrast to explicit bias, which is more consciously held and demonstrated through self-reported attitudes. In testing the effects of implicit vs. explicit bias, experiments showed that people are more likely to hire a male candidate for a science position than a female candidate, without ever realizing their bias.


Another important study conducted by the American Association of University Women reports girls’ views of their own abilities that limit their interest in mathematics and mathematically challenging careers. The report states that “girls assess their mathematical abilities lower than boys do with similar mathematical achievements. At the same time, girls hold themselves to a higher standard than boys do in subjects like math, believing that they have to be exceptional to succeed in ‘male’ fields.”

The study cites work from researcher Carol Dweck, a psychologist at Stanford University, who advocates for girls to have a “growth mindset” as opposed to a “fixed mindset.”

“Individuals with a ‘growth mindset’ believe that intelligence can be developed,” the study suggests. “Because of this they want to learn more and tend to embrace challenges, persist when they encounter obstacles, see effort as a path to mastery, learn from criticism and be inspired by the success of others.”

Why is this important to women in STEM? First, if women adopt a “growth mindset” and embrace challenge, they are less likely to be discouraged from taking on Calculus II, knowing that they will continue to refine their math skills as they take additional courses. Second—and perhaps more important—developing this mindframe sets them up for success in a STEM field, as encountering challenges and finding solutions to difficult problems is the nature of scientific work.

Dude Looks Like a Lady

To see how culturally imposed conventional gender ideologies affect women from pursuing a career in STEM, some studies looked at another key element of the STEM pipeline: the transition from degree completion into a STEM profession. Specifically, what would change if a woman expressed the same cultural values as a male? What if they delayed marriage and reduced the number of children they wanted? One study in particular, co-authored by Cornell demographer Sharon Sassler, shows that women who completed a STEM degree in the 1970s through the early ‘90s and “acted more like men” did not see an uptick in landing a STEM job. “The most career-oriented women—who expected to marry late and limit fertility—were no more likely to enter STEM jobs than were women who anticipated marrying young and having two or more children,” the study shows.

While analyzing employment rates for those who graduated almost 40 years ago may seem irrelevant to today’s job market, the study suggests otherwise. “Although the experiences of recent college graduates, especially women degree recipients, no doubt differ from the cohort we study, there are intimations that some of the challenges they face in the labor market are not markedly different. Progress in narrowing both occupational segregation and the gender wage gap has been slow, and while the proportion of women employed in STEM has grown over time, recent graduates appear less likely to transition into STEM jobs following degree receipt than earlier cohorts. Furthermore, the proportional representation of women in many STEM fields has not increased since the 1980s.”

So Now What?

There are numerous organizations who are leading efforts to bring more females into STEM careers—and they are grabbing these girls’ attention at an early age. All agree that change is possible only through cooperation between these advocate organizations and parents, educational institutions, government and employers.

Here are a few organizations that are driving the cause for Women in STEM forward:

Oh, and take Calculus I and don’t be afraid of Calculus II.