Guidance counselors could help close gender gap in Texas high school STEM participation


Women are underrepresented in the STEM workforce, and as high school and college students.

In the labor force and in postsecondary education, women lag behind their male counterparts when it comes to careers and interest in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

The demand for STEM workers is expected to increase in the coming years, and a typical STEM worker earns two-thirds more than employees in other fields, according to the Pew Research Center. The gender gap between men and women pursuing STEM careers puts women at an economic disadvantage.

The National Girls Collaborative Project reported women make up just 24% of undergraduates in engineering, 21% in computer science and 24% in physics.

New research from the Kinder Institute for Urban Research’s Houston Education Research Consortium (HERC) demonstrates how guidance counselors could help more female students graduate high school with a robust STEM background.

“There’s a lot of research that shows that guidance counselors matter, especially when it comes to the higher education space, and there is more research to be done in that area,” said Brian Holzman, a former research scientist at the Kinder Institute who now serves as an assistant professor of educational administration and human resource development at Texas A&M University.

Holzman is one of three co-authors of “The Role of Guidance Counselors in Narrowing the Gender Gap in STEM Endorsements.” The HERC brief is one in a series focused on the Houston Independent School District’s classes of 2018 and 2019, the first two cohorts to graduate under the endorsement framework established by the Texas Legislature in 2013.  

Endorsements, which are similar to college majors, give high school students an opportunity to pursue coursework that reflects their long-term career aspirations. They are offered in five areas: arts and humanities, business and industry, public services, STEM and multidisciplinary studies.

Freshmen in the Class of 2018 had a 5.5-percentage-point gender gap between male and female students who selected the STEM endorsement upon entering high school. By the time those students graduated, the gap for completing the STEM endorsement was 6.2 percentage points.

The Class of 2019 had an even larger gap — 9.5 percentage points — in its initial STEM endorsement selection. However, the completion gap virtually disappeared after HISD began requiring students visit with guidance counselors regarding their endorsements, decreasing to 0.8 percentage points for graduating seniors that year.

“Both male and female students were switching to STEM in the Class of 2019,” Holzman said. “That can be tied to the policy intervention. We just found that the associations were stronger for female students than they were for male students.”

While the introduction of check-ins with counselors had a disproportionate impact on female students’ likelihood of completing the STEM endorsement, Holzman said the policy was not designed to address the gender gap; it was about providing clarity on endorsements and their requirements.

“The district realized that students were confused about the endorsement program,” Holzman said. “It was a relatively new policy, and they were working to help students navigate and understand. It was geared toward helping students succeed, and making sure they were on track to graduate with their endorsement.”

Regardless, Holzman said providing students with information and advice tailored to their specific needs can be a powerful tool in closing the STEM endorsement gender gap.

“It’s not necessarily a one-size-fits-all approach,” he said. “Every student is different, and a guidance counselor can customize their support to each student.”

Two people working on project
STEM Endorsement and the Pathway to College (Briefs 1-4)
Feb. 6, 2024

This series of briefs looks at a variety of factors for students in choosing and completing the STEM endorsement in Houston ISD, including access, race, gender and academic achievement. The briefs also examine whether endorsement completion predicts college enrollment.



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