More girls might pursue science fields if they had more female teachers in middle and high school, two studies suggest (AP image of a middle school student, learning computer programing in Pennsylvania)

More than three-quarters of U.S. public school teachers are female. So it’s a bit surprising to hear an argument that there aren’t enough women in the profession. It’s kind of like saying there aren’t enough lawyers in Washington. But that’s exactly the case that two new research studies make for what’s needed to produce more women scientists and engineers in this country.

The studies suggest that if there were more female math and science teachers in middle and high school, more girls would study these subjects in college, and that providing female role models earlier in life — before students get to college — might be one of the more effective ways to encourage more girls to pursue higher level math and science. (“Science” broadly refers to all the hard sciences from computer science and physics to chemistry and engineering).

“A lot of the talk has been about trying to promote more female faculty in college. Maybe that’s misdirected,” said Tim Sass, an author of one of the studies and an economist at Georgia State University. “Maybe there should be more emphasis in hiring qualified faculty in the middle and high school level.”

While women dominate the teaching profession, they are somewhat less numerous among middle and high school math and science faculty. According to the Schools and Staffing Survey, conducted by the Department of Education, female teachers make up between 44 and 65 percent of middle and high school math and science faculty, depending upon the subject and the grade. Eighth-grade math teachers are 65 percent female, for example, but only 44 percent of 12th-grade science teachers are female.

The first study, “Growing the roots of STEM majors: Female math and science high school faculty and the participation of students in STEM” (referring to Science, Technology, Engineering and Math), published Jan. 31, 2015 in the Economics of Education Review, looked at every student in North Carolina who graduated from a public high school in 2004 and continued on to a public college or university in the state. Researchers from the University of North Carolina-Charlotte and Duke University had access to a trove of data, from the students’ middle school grades and high school transcripts to family income and school characteristics.

The researchers found that girls who went to high schools where at least 72 percent of the math and science teachers were female were 19 percent more likely to graduate from college with a science or math major than similar students whose only difference was that they went to a high school where only 54 percent of the math and science teachers were female.

The influence of female teachers was even stronger for high achieving girls — the ones who are most likely to have the preparation and ability to complete the demanding coursework of a science major. Among girls who scored at least 580 on the math section of the SATs, there was a 44 percent increase in the likelihood of graduating from college with a science or math degree if they had attended a high school where 72 percent of the math and science teachers were women, compared to a school where just 54 percent of the math and science teachers were women.

Boys, by contrast, were unaffected by the gender mix of their high school teachers.

Martha Bottia, the lead author of the study at U.N.C.-Charlotte, has also conducted interviews with dozens of science students, and said the high school experience is “what matters most” for pursuing higher-level science. “More than half of them make the decision (to major in a science or math subject) before they enter college,” said Bottia, explaining that science majors require more planning and preparation and a commitment to hard work. “It’s not like STEM majors go to college their first year with no idea what they’re going to major in and then decide to do physics.”

In humanities subjects, by contrast, freshman-year professors might be more influential than high school teachers in the selection of a major.

A second study looked at four years’ worth (or cohorts) of students in Florida from fifth grade through college graduation, and found that female math and science teachers as early as middle school make a difference in how many women pursue math and science in college. A still-unpublished working paper from this study, “Understanding the STEM Pipeline,” was delivered on Feb. 20, 2015, at a conference of the National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research (CALDER), a research consortium of six universities.

This data analysis showed that girls who had higher proportions of female math and science teachers in middle and high school were more likely to take one or more science or math courses during their first year in college. The author, Professor Sass, found that the probability of a young woman taking a math or science course in her freshman year of college increased by 3.3 percentage points as the proportion of female middle and high school teachers went from zero to half. To put that in perspective, that 3.3 percentage-point increase nearly eliminates the gender gap between men and women in the likelihood of taking at least one science or math course in the first year of college, according to Sass.

That’s important because young women in Florida perform nearly as well as young men in math achievement tests. But once they get to college, women are much less likely to take courses in the physical sciences in their first year, and less likely to earn a degree in physics or engineering, even after adjusting for pre-college test scores.

By contrast, Sass found that in college, women were just as likely to complete a major in a hard science whether they had been taught by male professors or female professors.

It does sound crazy, when a majority of K-12 math and science teachers are already women, that the solution to gender inequity in STEM fields might be to create an even more female-heavy teaching profession.  If you followed these studies to their logical extremes, we’d make all high school math and science teachers women.  Personally, I would still prefer to see more male K-12 teachers — because it might increase the prestige of the profession overall.

[Cross-posted at The Hechinger Report]

Our ideas can save democracy... But we need your help! Donate Now!

Jill Barshay is the founding editor and writer of Education By The Numbers, The Hechinger Report's blog about education data.