Study: to increase female participation, STEM profs should grade less 'harshly'

A new study argues that the number of women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) can be increased by simply making grading policies within the fields less harsh. 

In a paper titled “Equilibrium Grade Inflation with Implications for Female Interest in STEM Majors,” Naval Postgraduate School professor Thomas Ahn, Duke University economics professor Peter Arcidiacono, Duke University researcher Amy Hopson, and James R. Thomas of the Federal Trade Commission argue that STEM programs at colleges and universities lacking female enrollment can be attributed largely to harsh grading policies in these fields.

The researchers take the position that universities are discouraging students, especially female students, from pursuing STEM majors by allowing differences in grading policies and study time across different fields to exist. They contend that “harsher grading policies in STEM courses disproportionately affect women,” because women are more impacted mentally by receiving poor grades.

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The researchers conducted their study by pairing administrative and enrollment data from the University of Kentucky with hundreds of end of course evaluations.

Their research led them to the conclusion that women weigh grades more heavily when choosing which fields to pursue, and that their sensitivities to harsher grading policies and are in large part responsible for the lack of women in STEM fields.

According to the study, women study substantially more than men.  (Stinebrickner & Stinebrickner 2004, Arcidiacono et al. 2012) Overall, women study 33% more than men, but the researchers estimate that women would study over 42% more because of preferences for grades. Suggesting that extra study time associated with STEM courses isn’t the problem for Women.

While women also have higher grades than men in both STEM and non-STEM classes they are significantly under-represented in STEM classes. The researchers say this suggests that the association of lower GPA in STEM fields is a contributing factor to the lack of female enrollment, as women are less likely to carry on in a field in which they have received a low grade.

[RELATED: Profs say female STEM grades don’t reflect ‘perceived effort’]

The researchers go on to assert that females’ higher emotional attachment to grades in women creates the STEM gender gap. “This is driven by our finding that, while both men and women value grades, women value grades significantly more than men.” They argue that the solution to this emotionality difference is to standardize grading curves, in order to grade less “harshly.” This, they say, is a major part of the solution to increasing women’s involvement in STEM.

”Personally, I think it is ridiculous that large grade differences exist across fields. I believe these large differences in grading practices should be evened out,” Arcidiacono told Campus Reform. “This can be from non-STEM classes giving lower grades, STEM classes giving higher grades, or some combination of the two (the level of the grade is arbitrary).”

[RELATED: Oberlin students say bad grades are getting in the way of activism]

As a solution to the problem, the researchers suggest curving all STEM courses around a B letter grade to increase female STEM involvement by 11.3 percent.

“Removing gender differences in content preferences would require large changes in social attitudes and behaviors and might take decades. Comparatively, eliminating grading differences across fields should be relatively straightforward and affordable,” the team argues.

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