Women in STEM: A Research Guide

This guide provides sources and research strategies for critical analysis of women in STEM fields. 

Organized by a group at Stanford dedicated to empowering women in technology, this short documentary looks at the underrepresentation of women in computer science. Discusses aptitude.

Science Careers in Search of Women
Argonne National Laboratories (2019)

Image licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Women in Physics Conference
University of Nebraska Lincoln (2011)
Image licensed under CC BY-NC-2.0

Center of Excellence for Minority Women in STEM at Spelman
Department of Defense (2020)

Image is in the public domain

Some History

In 2005, Larry Summers, former president of Harvard, sparked an outcry when he suggested that women might not be as innately gifted in scientific and mathematical ability as men.  Below are some reactions, including a follow-up from Summers himself.

Hemel, D. J. (2005, January 14). Summers’ comments on women and science draw ire. The Harvard Crimson.

Summers, L. H. (2005, January 14). Remarks at NBER conference on diversifying the science & engineering workforce. The Office of the President, Harvard University.

Carnes, M., Handelsman, J., Fine, E., Sheridan, J., Benting, D., et al. (c2005). Response to Lawrence Summers’ remarks on women in science. Women in Science & Engineering Leadership Institute: University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Goldenberg, S. (2005, January 18). Why women are poor at science, by Harvard president. The Guardian.

Mackenzie, D. (2009). What Larry Summers said -- and didn't say. Swarthmore College Bulletin.

Trends in Research on Ability and Aptitude in STEM

Research about girls' and women's ability and aptitude in STEM spans a broad spectrum of inquiry. It continues to be an area for earnest study.

Examining differences:

Casey, B. M., & Ganley, C. M. (2021). An examination of gender differences in spatial skills and math attitudes in relation to mathematics success: A bio-psycho-social model. Developmental Review, 60. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.dr.2021.100963

Stewart-Williams, S., & Halsey, L. G. (2021). Men, women and STEM: Why the differences and what should be done? European Journal of Personality, 35(1), 3–39. https://doi.org/10.1177/0890207020962326

Moè, A., Jansen, P., & Pietsch, S. (2018). Childhood preference for spatial toys. Gender differences and relationships with mental rotation in STEM and non-STEM students. Learning & Individual Differences, 68, 108–115. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.lindif.2018.10.003

Stout, J. G., & Blaney, J. M. (2017). “But it doesn’t come naturally”: how effort expenditure shapes the benefit of growth mindset on women’s sense of intellectual belonging in computing. Computer Science Education, 27(3-4), 215-228.

Halpern, D. F., Benbow, C. P., Geary, D. C., Gur, R. C., Shibley Hyde, J., & Gernsbacher, M. A. (2007). The science of sex differences in science and mathematics. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 8(1), 1-51.

Spelke, E. S. (2005). Sex differences in intrinsic aptitude for mathematics and science?: A critical review. The American Psychologist, 60(9), 950-958. https://doi.org/10.1037/0003-066X.60.9.950

Gallagher, A. M., De Lisi, R., Holst, P. C., McGillicuddy-De Lisi, A. V., Morely, M., & Cahalan, C. (2000). Gender differences in advanced mathematical problem solving. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 75(3), 165–190. https://doi.org/10.1006/jecp.1999.2532

Examining factors for the "differences" in ability/aptitude or how to close the gap:

Applebee, D., Bennett-Day, B., Ferrari, J., Pritchard, P., & Boettger-Tong, H. (2021). Multimodal training improves spatial reasoning skills in female college students. Journal of Science Education & Technology, 30(4), 539–549. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10956-020-09898-6

Jasko, K., Dukala, K., & Szastok, M. (2019). Focusing on gender similarities increases female students’ motivation to participate in STEM. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 49(8), 473–487.

Wang, M.-T., Eccles, J. S., & Kenny, S. (2013). Not lack of ability but more choice: Individual and gender differences in choice of careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Psychological Science, 24(5), 770–775. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797612458937

Moe, A. (2009). Are males always better than females in mental rotation? Exploring a gender belief explanation. Learning and Individual Differences, 19(1), 21-27. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.lindif.2008.02.002

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Spatial Skills Research

Spatial visualization abilities have been shown to be a key predictor of success in science, technology, engineering, and math fields. Past research has revealed that women and underrepresented minorities tend to lag behind in spatial visual abilities; however, research has also shown that these skills can be improved with guided practice.

Sorby, S. A., & Veurink, N. (2019). Preparing for STEM: Impact of spatial visualization training on middle school math performance. Journal of Women and Minorities in Science and Engineering, 25(1).

LeBow, V., Bernhardt-Barry, M. L., & Datta, J. (2018). Improving spatial visualization abilities using 3D printed blocks. 2018 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition. (See link for “Download Paper” to get to full text)

Ha, O., & Fang, N. (2018). Interactive virtual and physical manipulatives for improving students’ spatial skills. Journal of Educational Computing Research, 55(8), 1088-1110.