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Rural Students and Women in STEM

Written by Dr. Tomotaroh Granzier-Nakajima
Published on February 17, 2023
Research Highlights

Rural students and women face barriers to accessing STEM training and jobs.

Increasing connections between the classroom and local job opportunities can increase STEM participation and retention.

State policies that expand family workforce accommodations (e.g., paid parental leave, child care access) can improve recruitment and retention of women in STEM careers.

Rural students and women have lower access to STEM training.

Student STEM interest and test scores are influenced by:


Parents and teachers are more likely to underestimate a girl’s math ability relative to a boy’s (Bleeker 2004; Lubienski et al. 2013) and encourage boys more often in math and science (Tenenbaum 2009).

Women earn about half of science and engineering degrees (NCSES 2023), but relative participation varies by field.

  • In 2020, women earned about 25% of engineering, math, and computer science degrees, 43% of physics and earth science degrees, and 65% of agricultural, biological, social and behavioral science degrees.

75% of STEM positions require additional training after high school (Okrent 2021). STEM enrollment at higher education institutions three years after high school graduation is higher in suburban (17%) relative to rural (13%) students. These differences can be partially explained by the lack of rural STEM learning opportunities (Saw 2021).

  • Rural and suburban students have similar levels of interest in STEM careers when entering high school, but rural students become relatively less interested by the end of 11th grade (Saw 2021).
  • Rural students earn fewer AP math and science credits than suburban students and have less access to advanced and AP STEM courses than suburban students (Saw 2021).
  • Schools in rural areas are less likely to host extracurricular STEM activities (Saw 2021).

Connecting learning to local economies can improve STEM participation.

One way to address recruitment and retention of women in STEM include is to restructure early education to cultivate interest in a STEM career by decreasing class size to increase student-teacher interaction (Deutsch 2003), providing hands on activities that connect learning with real life applications (Wang 2016), and emphasizing communal and societally beneficial aspects of STEM jobs.

Place-based education, which connects the classroom with the local community, history, environment , and workforce, can increase rural students’ beliefs about their own STEM abilities, STEM career interest, and aspirations to stay in their communities (Starrett 2022).

Strategies to match education with work-force needs in rural areas include engaging employers in the development of education and training programs at colleges and universities, regularly monitoring workforce data to identify unmet needs earlier, and publishing public workforce data with examples of best practices and current workforce training capacity in the region (USDA 1 2022; Goldman 2015).

  • In west Texas, the Educate Texas grant program expanded existing partnerships between energy companies and K-12, higher education, and workforce, which correlated with higher associate degree completion and more students pursuing STEM majors in their second year (Shields 2020).

Rural students and women face non-educational barriers to STEM workforce participation.

U.S. STEM jobs are projected to grow 11% by 2031, compared to 5% growth for non-STEM jobs (BLS 2022). In MO, registered nurses and software developers had the largest amount of online job postings in 2022 (DHEWD 2022).


In 2021, 35% of STEM jobs were occupied by women (NCSES 2023). Women with STEM degrees are more likely than men to work in education and medicine (Diekman 2015). Factors that influence STEM workforce participation of women include (Wang 2016):

  • Career preferences. Women tend to prefer working in social environments more than men (Su 2009). STEM jobs are often perceived as not aligning with communal goals (Diekman 2011).
  • Work-family balance. American cultural norms often assume women are primarily responsible for childcare, and tend to be more willing to make sacrifices in their occupation for their families (Wang 2016). STEM fields require large educational and working time commitments, making it difficult to take maternity leave.
  • Gender Biases. Gender biases result in preferential hiring practices for men in STEM (Moss-Racusin 2012; Reuben 2014).

State policies that accommodate family obligations in the workplace (e.g., paid parental leave, child care access) can improve recruitment and retention of women in STEM careers (Wang 2016).


The perception of available future job opportunities is a key factor that determines where rural students who perform well in school want to live (Petrin 2014). Employment has grown more slowly in rural areas than urban areas, and rural areas still haven’t fully recovered from the Great Recession (USDA 2 2022). In rural regions, many of the jobs with the most online job postings were for health care professionals.

  • To learn more about rural workforce expansion strategies, see our Science Notes on Rural Workforce Development, Rural Physician Grant Programs, and Advanced Practice Registered Nursing.


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