“Closing the Gender Gap” at Any Cost Threatens the Academic Integrity of STEM Education

By: Atilla Sulker

The National Bureau of Economic Research recently published a study which concluded that the grading policies for STEM classes contribute to the gender gap in the STEM field.

The study finds that STEM classes, on average, assign lower grades compared to non-STEM classes and that this tends to deter women enrolling. Women — who value higher grades more than men — are apparently put off by the lower average grades in STEM subjects. This is despite the fact that “women have higher grades in both STEM and non-STEM classes,” according to the study.

The study also shows that women are more likely to switch out of STEM than men. To increase female participation, the authors propose curving all courses to around a B. They estimate that this would increase female enrollment by 11.3 percent.

This may seem like a noble endeavor, but it is based on a faulty premise, and it will have adverse effects.

The authors aim to solve the problem of the gender gap in STEM, but they never explain why this should be a goal. Individuals have distinct abilities, and efforts to “equalize” their abilities and interests based on gender goes against this.

That men have lower attrition rates in STEM should not necessarily be seen as an advantage. For example, another study by Karen Clark, a doctoral candidate at Liberty University, shows that women are, on average, more persistent than men in staying in college. This may be, in part, because they are more likely to avoid high-attrition courses of study like STEM.

The effort to “close the gender gap” in STEM represents a preference for minority status over merit that deems a student’s performance less important than her femaleness. Yet it only hurts individuals to put them in a field in which they will be unhappy or perform poorly, regardless of gender. If an individual, no matter how gifted, is averse to the risk of possibly burning out and forgoing a good grade, then maybe STEM isn’t the right field.

STEM curricula are deliberately rigorous, as their subjects are not easy, and bridges tend to collapse when things go wrong. This is why there are weed-out classes to discourage students from pursuing them lightly. In general, women earn higher marks, but students trying to maintain a high GPA — something women value more than men — might rather avoid such classes. There is no guarantee that in STEM subjects reasonable effort will earn one an A.

Thus, we should not mistake an individual’s willingness to work hard with fitness for STEM. Rather, it is their ability to cope with the possibility of burnout and lower grades, in addition to hard work, that is the better indicator. The National Bureau of Economic Research study clearly shows that men express this ability at a higher rate.

The authors’ view presents yet another dilemma. If we are to close the gender gap in STEM, why not also do so in other areas? What if the history, philosophy, and business departments also have this disparity? Why not intervene in every department, every class, and so on? This would create an endless continuum of administrative oversight and indifference to merit.

The authors would likely agree that such an approach would be too extreme, but this concession destroys their argument. The goal is to close the gender gap, but if this end is not pursued to the extreme, one group will still be “less equal” by their definition.

We should ask ourselves if we are really to throw out pure merit for the sake of an unbacked ideal like “We need more women in STEM.” We never seem to question why we pursue these ideals, or the many unseen effects of pursuing such policies. We just accept them as sacred.

This article originally appeared in the Washington Examiner.

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