Where are the Girls? STEM Career & Technical Education

January 12, 2017

Career and technical education is no longer the forgotten stepchild of education reform. The plight of jobless Americans took center stage in the turbulent Presidential election and raised the stakes for creating pathways to the middle class that don’t pass through the ivy-fringed gates of four-year colleges. In fact, jaded Congress watchers believe that CTE may be one of the few issues that will win bipartisan support in 2017.

That’s good news, but converts to the CTE cause will soon discover what CTE experts have known for a long time: namely, that the gender gaps in CTE’s STEM subjects are every bit as large as gender gaps in advanced math and science classes. In fact, those gaps are growing. To create broad opportunities for all their students, states must meet this problem head on.

To gauge the depth of the challenge, we reviewed federal data on high school students who concentrate in one of four critical STEM CTE fields: Health science, information technology, manufacturing, and science & technology.[1]

The lion’s share of female high schoolers concentrating in STEM CTE study health science, while male students are more evenly distributed:

Not surprisingly, high school girls dominate health science, but they are scarce in the other three career clusters.  The imbalance has gotten worse since 2007/08:

CTE Gender Imbalance is Growing

In science and engineering, girls held steady at a measly 25 percent. [1]

The news isn’t all bad for girls. They dominate in health sciences at a time when the healthcare sector is growing quickly and middle-skill jobs in health command a strong wage, at least for those who go on to earn a two-year technical degree.

Still, the gender imbalances should concern everyone. it’s more than a bit troubling that segregation by gender is getting worse. As fields like healthcare and computing continue to grow, we cannot draw most of our talent from only half of the population. In addition, a growing body of research tells us that organizations benefit from gender diversity in the workplace.

What’s to be done? As with most problems that really matter, the solutions are multifaceted, ranging from formally recruiting girls as early as middle schools to redesigning CTE curricula to avoid gender stereotypes and providing CTE teachers professional development on how to create a welcoming environment for all genders. 

(Check out this handy primer on professional development for a fuller list.)

Employers should continue making the case for gender balance while identifying employees who can serve as mentors: female employees in advanced manufacturing, for example, or male nurses. Governors can use their bully pulpit to advance campaigns that encourage gender diversity in middle-skill STEM jobs. Career and technical educators can work with their schools and districts to design targeted student recruitment strategies that break through the gender stereotypes.

Each state or community might find a different set of solutions, but none can afford to ignore the problem. State leaders must dedicate themselves to improving matters. The Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act of 2006, which is likely to be reauthorized this year, requires states to report on their progress in improving gender equity in CTE. It is not yet clear, however, whether states will suffer any federal consequences if they fail to reach their targets. There is little appetite for federal sanctions these days.

The solution is up to all of us. After all, everyone has a major stake in fostering a creative and robust middle skills workforce. We won’t get there if we allow boys and girls to go their separate ways.


[1] Health Science, Information Technology, Manufacturing, and “STEM” are career clusters in the National Career Clusters Framework. For the purposes of this analysis, we have renamed the STEM career cluster as “Science & engineering” to avoid confusion with our own definition of STEM, which includes the other three career clusters. The Science & engineering cluster includes “planning, managing and providing scientific research and professional and technical services (e.g., physical science, social science, engineering) including laboratory and testing services, and research and development services.”

[2] Data reveal that male and female enrollments more than doubled—growing by roughly 120 percent each. That said, girls did not improve their relative position.

Tags: Career Technical Education, women & girls, computer science, engineering