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The Influence of STEM Definitions for Research on Women's College Attainment

Background Prior research has inconsistently operationalized Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) fields, presenting an interpretation challenge. A content analysis of 51 quantitative, gender-focused, higher education-oriented, STEM-related studies in the ERIC database published between January 2010 and July 2018 revealed that only 13 articles used an existing STEM definition. In 15, STEM was not explicitly defined, and others defined STEM independently. This wide range of definitions may lead to confusion or misrepresentation of findings for interventions and practices to support women in STEM. To illustrate the issue and prompt recommendations for future research, this study uses data from the United States National Center for Education Statistics’ Education Longitudinal Study (ELS:2002/12) to investigate the connection between STEM definition and the outcome of college degree completion, comparing results by gender for five ways of operationalizing STEM fields. Results We found the size, direction, and significance of the gender gap depended on STEM operationalization. When STEM was defined as high paradigm fields, the odds of women attaining a non-STEM degree were higher than otherwise. When social science fields were included in STEM, there was no statistically significant difference by gender. When looking specifically at fields considered related to science and engineering, the direction of the relationship was reversed. Conclusion While our findings follow expectations about social science fields and gender, it is noteworthy that results regarding STEM degree completion by gender for science and engineering-related fields were opposite those of high paradigm STEM fields. This result highlights that the definition of STEM matters, and inconsistent operationalization in the literature presents an interpretation challenge. We argue the field should strive to find common categorizations of STEM that retain the legitimate variation in how STEM can and should be defined, while providing a basis for consistent comparison. We recommend researchers and practitioners developing research-based practices: 1) interpret research findings understanding potential inconsistency from different STEM operationalizations, 2) explicitly describe STEM operational definitions to enable comparing findings, 3) routinely analyze sensitivity to alternate STEM definitions, and 4) find common STEM categorizations that retain legitimate variation while providing a basis for consistent comparison.
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