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Localizing and Understanding Mechanisms of Gender Differences Within Pathways Towards and Away from Science Degrees

Witherspoon, Eben (2019) Localizing and Understanding Mechanisms of Gender Differences Within Pathways Towards and Away from Science Degrees. Doctoral Dissertation, University of Pittsburgh. (Unpublished)

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Despite decades-old research revealing gender differences in retention in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), persistent gaps in women’s participation remain in some undergraduate science courses and majors. Across three studies, this dissertation seeks to better identify the location and sources of persistent gender differences in pathways into and out of the Sciences, with a special focus on an understudied population that drives many of the larger trends: undergraduate pre-medical students.
In part, the studies relate the persistence of gender gaps in the sciences to an over-application of the “STEM Pipeline” metaphor, which ignores a number of other factors that play a role in undergraduates’ choice of majors and careers, including historical gender differences within particular science domains. I show that pre-health and pre-medicine are particularly important pathways for understanding gendered attrition in science because they represent a large population of students enrolling in introductory science courses. In addition, these pathways produce a high proportion of eventual science degree earners. However, relative attrition by gender persists within the long sequence of required pre-med science courses, especially in later physical sciences courses (i.e., Organic Chemistry, Algebra-based Physics).
In addition to localizing these phenomena for pre-medical students at particular points in time, the studies focus on mechanisms both academic (as relative successes and failures) and social-psychological, through which students’ experiences in these courses influence their beliefs about their abilities, their performance, and eventually their decisions to persist within science courses and majors. The results from this collection of studies brings depth and specificity to a pathways model as a more accurate alternative to the problematic pipeline model of STEM participation, by identifying courses and discipline-specific psychological mechanisms along under-explored, high-bandwidth pathways to science, which could be targets for intervention. Importantly, this approach shifts the focus of sources of gender differences in the sciences away from immutable, pre-existing differences in prior experiences and performance, and towards emphasizing the agency higher education institutions have in addressing more malleable, concurrent elements of women’s experiences in undergraduate physical science courses, which either work to perpetuate or mitigate earlier differences.


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Item Type: University of Pittsburgh ETD
Status: Unpublished
CreatorsEmailPitt UsernameORCID
Witherspoon, Ebenebw13@pitt.eduebw130000-0003-0987-3679
ETD Committee:
TitleMemberEmail AddressPitt UsernameORCID
Committee ChairSchunn, Christianschunn@pitt.eduschunn0000-0003-3589-297X
Committee MemberBinning, Kevinkbinning@pitt.edukbinning0000-0002-5396-4183
Committee MemberMiller,
Committee MemberVotruba-Drzal, Elizabethevotruba@pitt.eduevotruba0000-0003-0708-1205
Date: 25 September 2019
Date Type: Publication
Defense Date: 21 August 2019
Approval Date: 25 September 2019
Submission Date: 29 August 2019
Access Restriction: No restriction; Release the ETD for access worldwide immediately.
Number of Pages: 167
Institution: University of Pittsburgh
Schools and Programs: School of Education > Learning Sciences and Policy
Degree: PhD - Doctor of Philosophy
Thesis Type: Doctoral Dissertation
Refereed: Yes
Uncontrolled Keywords: equity, gender, motivation, retention, science
Date Deposited: 25 Sep 2019 15:30
Last Modified: 25 Sep 2019 15:30


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