Women Leaving Premed Track More Than Men

A new study found female students are more likely to drop out of science courses leading up to med school even if they're earning the same grades as their male counterparts.

April 16, 2019
 
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Research shows that female high school students are more interested in the medical field than their male counterparts. The young women also earn better grades in high school and attend college at higher rates.

So it might stand to reason that there would be more women than men in college premed courses and taking the Medical College Admission Test, or MCAT. But that’s not the case, according to a new study about the "gendered nature" of attrition in premed science courses.

Professors at the University of Pittsburgh examined the academic records of more than 8,250 students at what they described as a large, public four-year research institution. These students had enrolled in the typical sequence of premed science courses at the university between 2008 and 2016.

The researchers wanted to find out if women were dropping out of the premed track more often than men. The study determined that women were indeed dropping out more, and doing so even when they were earning the same high grades as their male peers.

These findings seem to contradict more recent trends showing that, despite the dominant number of men in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields, more women than men applied to American medical schools last year -- for the first time since 2004, according to data from the Association of American Medical Colleges.

According to the study, men and women enrolled in certain science courses in the first year of college at about the same rate. But gender gaps started to emerge in the second year of college. For instance, about 96 percent of male students who earned an A in an organic chemistry I class, a traditional first-year course, went on to take organic chemistry II. But only 89 percent of women who earned an A in the chemistry I course moved on to chemistry II, the researchers found.

This finding is significant because it shows that academic performance wasn’t the hindrance for women -- it was other factors, said Paulette Vincent-Ruz, a graduate student at Pittsburgh and one of the study’s authors.

Vincent-Ruz and her fellow researchers, Christian Schunn, a psychology professor, and Eben B. Witherspoon, another graduate student, theorized that a lack of confidence in their abilities by the female students played a role.

“Even if they have the same achievement, they still have lower beliefs in their abilities,” Vincent-Ruz said. “It creates this dynamic and makes them be less likely to continue, like, ‘Well, if I’m not great at this, why should I continue?’”

The researchers found that gender discrepancies are more pronounced in the later years of college, especially in the final year when students are taking the MCAT.

About 30 percent of female students whose average final grade from premed science classes was an A took the MCAT, compared to 65 percent of male students.

More than 5,550 women intended to pursue medicine in their first year in college, the study showed. But only 194 of them took the MCAT; for men, about 2,690 men reported they were premed and 262 took the MCAT.

Vincent-Ruz said colleges and universities need to examine their “messaging” and talk with professors to figure out why women are dissuaded from pursuing premedical studies. A possibility for a future study would be interviewing women in medicine and hearing the obstacles they faced entering their field, she said.

“Universities need to be doing interventions for professors and how the professors think about their students,” Vincent-Ruz said.

She said that women are already looked down on by certain science faculty, and a narrative persists that “you have to be a genius” in order to enter the medical field.

Witherspoon suggested that further research focus on how institutions are trying to keep women in premed courses.

“What are institutions doing well?” he said. “For cross-institutional research, it’s important to figure out.”

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