Gender Gaps in Math Performance, Perceived Mathematical Ability and College STEM Education: The Role of Parental Occupation

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STEM gender gaps, perceived ability, self-efficacy, college major, parental occupations


Employment opportunities in occupations related to Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, the so-called STEM fields, are predicted to continue growing through time. In addition, STEM occupations also enjoy higher wages on average. Despite these advantages, women remain under-represented in STEM college degree completion and occupations. Encouraging women into the STEM fields has become an important policy concern. We use longitudinal data from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics to study gender differences in math achievement and self-perceived math ability and how they may differ by parental occupation type, specifically science related versus non-science related parental occupations. We then study their role on subsequent decision of majoring in a science field in college. Our results corroborate significant gender differences in math test scores and perceived math ability during childhood. Having a parent working in a science related field is associated with a better performance in math but not necessarily higher levels of perceived math ability, given math performance. All three factors, math achievement, perceived math ability, and parental occupation in a science field, are found to be significant predictors of the probability of majoring in science in college. However, estimated effects of higher levels of math achievement are about double for boys than for girls. Estimates of perceived math ability are also slightly larger for boys. In contrast, most of the observed positive effects of having a parent in a science related occupation seem to be concentrated among females. These results suggest a loss in STEM enrollment by otherwise qualified young women and the potential importance that parental role modeling effects or specific human capital parental investments by parents in science occupations could have for encouraging women to major in science fields.


EDRE Working Paper No. 2017-21