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Bridging the Persistence Gap: An Investigation of the Underrepresentation of Female and Minority Students in STEM Fields

By Aaditya Jain and Bailey Kaston

Prior literature on mismatch theory has concentrated primarily on minority students, whose lower average levels of pre-enrollment preparedness tend to discourage them from persisting in STEM fields as often as their non-minority counterparts at selective universities. Our study shifts the focus to the persistence gap between men and women, invoking social cognitive career theory to investigate how factors beyond preparedness – such as self-confidence – cause women to switch out of selective STEM programs at higher rates than men. Using the High School Longitudinal Study of 2009, we investigate the drivers of STEM persistence for all students and arrive at two main conclusions. First, higher levels of STEM preparedness are more beneficial to STEM persistence at selective universities, confirming mismatch theory in the sample. We then simulate the counterfactual scenario and find that 33% of students at selective schools would have been more likely to persist in STEM had they attended less selective schools, a figure that reaches 50% for underconfident female students. This observation ties to our second conclusion – that underconfidence in math relative to one’s true performance decreases the likelihood of STEM persistence for all students at selective universities, and that female students at selective schools are more likely to be underconfident than their male counterparts. Our findings suggest that the appropriate policy solution to reduce STEM attrition rates among women should then become a two-pronged approach: (1) more selective universities should better support the STEM self-confidence levels of female students, and (2) home environments should ideally cultivate that self-confidence long before women even reach college. In our final set of analyses, we thus explore the factors that drive math overconfidence in the first place, and conclude that both student and parental biases against female STEM ability are detrimental to the STEM self-confidence of female students.

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Advisors: Professor Peter Arcidiacono, Professor Michelle Connolly | JEL Codes: I2, I24, I26


Undergraduate Program Assistant
Jennifer Becker

Director of the Honors Program
Michelle P. Connolly