Sex and Science: How Professor Gender Perpetuates the Gender Gap

Female students perform significantly better in introductory math and science courses if taught by female faculty, and they are more likely to pursue majors in science, technology, engineering or math.


Over the past 40 years, women have made significant advancements in narrowing the gender gap across a number of prestigious careers that were formerly dominated by men. Today, women are just as likely as men to graduate with degrees in medicine, law and business. Despite these advancements, a significant gender gap persists in the sciences. Women are 37 percent less likely than men to graduate with degrees in science or engineering and only account for 25 percent of the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) workforce. While men’s and women’s aptitude and preparedness for STEM courses is roughly equal upon entering college, evidence suggests that the gender gap expands exponentially during college. A possible explanation for the widening gender gap observed during college relates role model effects, as well as gender-related differences in academic expectations, teaching styles and student encouragement. To better understand these hypothesized mechanisms, in this study, the authors explore the impact of a professor’s gender on female and male students’ performance in introductory math and science courses and the subsequent likelihood of continuing coursework in STEM fields at the U.S. Air Force Academy (USAFA).


Professor gender has a powerful impact on female students’ performance in math and science courses, the likelihood that they will take additional math and science courses in the future, and rates of graduation with a STEM degree, while there is little effect observed among male students.

  • Female students on average perform 15% of a standard deviation lower than statistically identical male students in introductory STEM coursework. Female students perform 10% of a standard deviation better in introductory math and science courses when taught by female rather than male faculty, while there is minimal impact on male students. Overall, having a female professor reduces the gender gap in course performance by two-thirds.
  • Across all women in the sample, there were no statistically significant differences between women who had a female professor and those who did not on long term outcomes, including future STEM course enrollment, withdrawal from the program, performance in following coursework, or the probability of graduating with a STEM major.
  • Significant effects of having a female professor are most prominent among high-ability female students. For female students in the upper quartile of the SAT math distribution, having a female professor eliminates the gender gap in introductory math and science course grades as well as in choice of major. On average, within this high-ability group, women are 27 percentage points less likely than men to complete a STEM major. When these women have exclusively female introductory math and science professors, however, they are more likely to major in STEM then those who are assigned to exclusively male faculty.

At USAFA, 9,015 students from classes graduating between 2001 and 2008 were randomly assigned to male or female professors for mandatory standardized courses in chemistry, physics, engineering, history and English. During their freshman year, students take math and science placement exams and are randomly assigned to core curriculum courses conditional on their placement test scores. All faculty members use a standardized curriculum and give identical exams during a common testing period. Students’ grades are not calculated by a student’s individual professor. These institutional characteristics ensure that there is no self-selection of courses or attrition bias among students.

The authors analyzed pretreatment, baseline, and follow-up data, collected by USAFA Institutional Research and Assessment from 9,015 students between 2001 and 2008. Pretreatment data included information related to students’ high school characteristics such as SAT scores, GPA and class rank. While baseline data included USAFA grades in introductory STEM courses and professors’ gender, academic ranking and education level. Finally, follow up data included whether or not students completed their bachelor degree, decisions to take follow-on STEM course beyond the required courses and choice of academic major.

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