Influence of Social Capital on the STEM Pipeline

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Implicit biases perpetuate stereotypes that discourage the participation of women and minorities in STEM disciplines, specifically engineering. These implicit biases are evident in the lingering androcentric cultures that remain in high tech industries, where the majority of employees are still, despite countless efforts, white males. There is no simple cause-effect that can be tackled to solve the gender and minority disparity in engineering disciplines. Many theories attempt to rationalize why women or minorities do not choose careers in engineering, such as stereotype threat, attribution theory, fixed/growth mindset, social-cognitive career theory, etc. However, I propose that many of the theories we postulate as the cause of the disparity, in essence altogether create a social capital that is not easily attained by women or minorities throughout the STEM pipeline.

This essay examines the theory of social capital, as described in Nan Lin’s book, Social Capital: A Theory of Social Structure and Action, and aims to provide a new perspective by extrapolating the potential influence social capital has on the STEM pipeline, specifically women and engineering, from K-12, to university, and into industry.

What is Social Capital?

When we think of capital, we typically think immediately about money. Entrepreneurs seek Venture Capitalists to provide money to get their product or idea off the starting blocks and into the races.  The valued resource in this example is purely financial, or economic, and this is just one dimension of what “capital” really means. For example, economic capital provides a position of class, and individual wealth; political capital provides a position of authority, and individual power; and social capital provides a position of status or prestige, and individual reputation[pg 37]. The elements of social capital, or the embedded resources in social networks, include the flow of information, social ties that exert influence, certifications of an individual’s social credentials, and reinforcements of support and acknowledgement [pg 20].

Lin writes that there are “two ultimate rewards for human beings in a social structure:” economic standing and social standing. Economic standing is based on the accumulation and distribution of wealth, and social standing is based on the accumulation and distribution of reputation. Lin adds, “both economic and social standings enhance an individual’s power and influence in the structure (over other members)[pg 150].” Looking from a perspective of resources alone, Lin compares personal vs. social resources. Personal resources are resources possessed by an individual and may include ownership of material (including economic capital) as well as symbolic good (e.g. diplomas and degrees), referred to as human capital. Social resources are resources accessed through an individual’s social connections. Lin claims that in both quantity and quality, social resources far outweigh personal resources in their potential usefulness to individuals. [pg 21]

Ultimately, with capital, there is some form of action, and Lin summarizes this action as either instrumental or expressive. Instrumental action is taken to obtain resources not possessed (e.g. entrepreneurs seek Venture Capitalists), and the returns are extrinsic: economic, political, and social. Expressive action is taken to maintain resources already possessed, and the returns are more intrinsic: physical health, mental health, and life satisfaction [pg 244]. Lin states that “social capital works in instrumental and expressive actions not accounted for by forms of personal capital such as economic or human capital [p 20],” meaning social capital requires both forms of action. In a simple summary, social capital could be described as your reputation within your network, and how you leverage both.

What is the STEM Pipeline?

Science, technology, engineering and mathematics are commonly grouped and known as STEM for short. This acronym is meant to symbolize the relationship that each of these disciplines has with the other, is a grouping for initiatives in K-12 education, and serves as a designation for a group of careers that are in demand and a national focus in the U.S.

Why are STEM careers in demand? The science and engineering (S&E) workforce has shown sustained grown for more than half a century. The number of workers in S&E occupations grew from about 182,000 in 1950 to 5.4 million in 2009. This represents an average annual growth rate of 5.9%, almost five times the 1.2% growth rate for the total workforce older than age 18 during this period. Workforce growth in S&E occupations from 2000 to 2009 was slower than in the preceding two decades. Nonetheless, at 1.4% growth annually, it exceeded the 0.2% growth rate for the general workforce. In addition, many workers outside S&E occupations have STEM training or use related knowledge and skills in their jobs.  In fact, seven out of ten of the fastest growing occupations (requiring at least an associate degree) are in STEM fields.

What is driving STEM growth? Every day that you wake up and get out of bed, you should be reminded why STEM matters. I challenge you to name one thing you have used in the past week (or ever) that hasn’t been touched by an engineer (who uses science, math, and technology to create the new technologies you love – or hate). Spoiler alert: you won’t come up with anything… and if you do, email me, because I bet I can help you figure out how an engineer was involved somewhere along the way. The demand for technology continues to grow: if it is not the next best iPhone, it is the medical equipment and devices that are helping doctors save lives. The National Academy of Engineering has outlined 14 grand challenges for the 21st century that will require all levels of STEM professionals: from assembly line workers trained to use highly technical machines, to PhD astrophysicists.

How are we going to meet STEM workforce demands? This is where the STEM pipeline metaphor comes into the picture, and it means preparing students from early on in their primary/secondary education, through college education, and into the workforce to be our future STEM professionals.  Simply put, it is about trajectory, and there are many options for a future in STEM. A good foundation in math and science in K-12 is important and the trigger for many different trajectories towards STEM careers. (Side note: This doesn’t mean you have to love it or be the best at it!) So to meet the demands, we need to get students into the “pipeline” or set into a good trajectory, and this means all students! Women, blacks, and Hispanics are significantly underrepresented in STEM, specifically in engineering [In the workforce, 1/10 engineers is a woman, 1/15 engineers is Hispanic, and 1/20 engineers is black], and we must increase the participation of all groups in order to meet these demands.

So why are women, blacks, and Hispanics underrepresented in engineering, or STEM fields in general?  As mentioned in the introduction, there are many theories, and though this essay is focused specifically on women, many of the ideas are transferrable to other underrepresented groups. The next section provides a snapshot of the current situations for women along the STEM pipeline.

Status Quo

Understanding the current state of women in the STEM pipeline, and the environment in which we are training future female engineers and releasing them into, enables increased clarity to the sociological and physiological implications for young women in the classroom. The book Why So Few? (Hill, Corbett, & St Rose, 2010) is an excellent and recent synopsis of the research that aims to understand gender disparity in STEM, and I will refer to this free publication for a more comprehensive discussion. Bulleted below are a few highlights from the book:

[list5]<li>Gender differences in self-confidence in STEM subjects begin in middle school and increase in high school and college, with young women reporting less confidence than young men do in their math and science ability.</li>

<li>Though young women take more science and math classes, and make better grades in these subjects than males, they are not choosing STEM careers – opting for more commonly perceived socially beneficial careers.  While in reality, engineers make a world of difference, and help shape the future by creating products and processes that are essential to our health, happiness, and safety.</li>

<li>Interest in an occupation is influenced by many factors, including a belief that one can succeed in that occupation, and culturally prescribed gender roles.</li>

<li>Two stereotypes are prevalent: girls are not as good as boys in math, and scientific work is better suited to boys and men. As early as elementary school, children are aware of these stereotypes and can express stereotypical beliefs about which science courses are suitable for females and males. Stereotype threat may also help explain why fewer girls than boys express interest in and aspirations for careers in mathematically demanding fields. Girls may attempt to reduce the likelihood that they will be judged through the lens of negative stereotypes by saying they are not interested and by avoiding these fields.</li>

<li>Most people associate science and math fields with “male” and humanities and arts fields with “female.” Implicit bias is common, even among individuals who actively reject these stereotypes. This bias not only affects individuals’ attitudes toward others but may also influence girls’ and women’s likelihood of cultivating their own interest in math and science.</li>

<li>Many young women graduate from high school with the skills needed to succeed in majors in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, yet college-bound women are less likely than men to pursue majors in these fields. The culture of academic departments in colleges and universities has been identified as a critical issue for women’s success in earning college degrees in STEM fields.</li>

<li>People tend to view women in “masculine” fields, such as most STEM fields, as either competent or likable but not both, and the combination of these traits are important for advancement in the workplace. This balance may be more difficult for women than men to achieve in science and engineering fields, and thus may impede advancement.</li>[/list5]

As this list features, stereotypes & gender roles create cultures that negatively affect the confidence of women to enter into and succeed in STEM disciplines. This has become the status quo that must be challenged. It is this culture that fosters a social capital that can thus not be easily attained by women. The next portion of the essay hypothesizes and makes a case that there is a social capital that is not easily attained by the underrepresented throughout the STEM pipeline: including the beginning – in their K-12 science and math classes, into their university programs, and finally, in industry as well.

Dominant cultures

Let me preface by saying I have no beef with white males, or the inherent culture among them. (In fact, I am quite fond of them!) What I am trying to do is explain how the system that exists creates a social capital that is not easily attained by women in engineering. In his book, Lin describes foundational theories of culture. According to Bourdieu, culture is a system of symbolism and meaning. Bordieu argues that “a society’s dominant class imposes its culture by engaging in pedagogic action (e.g. education), which internalizes the dominant symbols and meanings in the next generation, thus reproducing the salience of the dominant culture [pg 14].”

Men have historically been the dominant “class” or “culture”, and white privilege is tied very closely. Stereotypes and implicit bias that linger become the dominant symbols and meanings that are perpetuated through the generations. While much has changed, and we no longer live in a “Don Draper World,” the implicit bias of that generation and before still linger.

Implicit Bias

What do I mean by implicit bias? Harvard researcher Mahzarin Banaji, says “Implicit biases come from the culture. I think of them as the thumbprint of the culture on our minds.” What this means is that, even individuals who consciously refute gender and science stereotypes can still hold that belief at an unconscious level. Her research suggests that these unconscious beliefs or implicit biases may be more powerful than explicitly held beliefs and values simply because we are not aware of them. Seventy percent of more than half a million Implicit Association Tests completed by citizens of 34 countries revealed implicit stereotypes that indicate a strong implicit association of male with science and female with arts and a high level of gender stereotyping at the unconscious level among both women and men of all races and ethnicities. This is the unfortunate thumbprint of the residual patriarchal culture on all of our minds.

In looking specifically at engineering, that has been and continues to be dominated by white males, according to Bourdieu’s definition, these dominances are reflected in our education system. For example, in my circuits class in college, I was the only female. The professor (who is a super kind man that I admire) asked a question one day about who played with trains as a child, in an effort to link something he was instructing to an application. Always an overzealous student in the front of the class, I quickly raised my hand. I grew up near a major train track, where we would play sometimes, and we had train sets at home. The professor looked at me and said without hesitation, “You are a girl. Why would you have played with trains?,” and he went on with the lesson. Did he mean to be so blatantly sexist? I honestly do not believe so. But this implicit bias that he overtly exerted, sends a signal to the class, and subsequently maintains salience of the dominant culture, that as a woman I was inferior to the men as I shouldn’t have had the same experiences as the men to understand the application. While this is but one example, there are many! When a teacher comments on how excellent the designs are crafted in a high school male student’s engineering notebook, but tells the young woman how pretty hers are, we are sending the same message. When a teacher, unwittingly, calls on the boys in class to answer more questions, and follows up with more probing questions than she does with the females, this is sending the same message. These are all examples of how our implicit biases can show up in the classroom, and thus support stereotypes that males are better at math and science than women, and hi tech careers are more for men than women. Therefore this dominant male centered culture, as a result of the embedded implicit biases, create a social capital that women cannot readily access.

Social Capital for a Group

Lin describes social capital as “a collective asset shared by members of a defined group, with clear boundaries, obligations of exchange, and mutual recognition [pg 22].” He links this to Bourdieu’s definition of social capital as a production of a group’s members. If in engineering courses, the majority of the students are males, the social capital produced would likely be a product of that dominant culture. Lin suggests that it takes “repeated exchanges that reinforce mutual recognition and boundaries to affirm and reaffirm the collectivity of the capital and each member’s claim to the capital [pg 22].” Therefore the stereotypes and implicit bias inherent in the typical science, technology, engineering, and math classrooms, are the repeated exchanges that reinforce the dominant culture. This affirms the social capital produced as masculine, and less accessible to female students.

In exploring the notion of mutual recognition, I notice correlations to a sense of belonging or identity in STEM subjects. A longitudinal study conducted by Good, Rattan, and Dweck, followed college students in their calculus course. Results showed that “females’ sense of belonging to math not only predicted women’s academic choices and achievement, but it was also sensitive to women’s perceptions of their academic environment.” They found that the more “women perceived their math environments to convey either a high degree of stereotyping or a fixed view of math intelligence, the lower was their sense of belonging (Good, Rattan, & Dweck, 2012, emphasis added).” If the recognition that is occurring within the space of the classroom is metered by gender stereotypes that are unwelcoming and unsupportive of women in STEM, then women do not have easy access to the social capital produced in these environments.

While organizations, or classroom or high tech corporate environments, take on characteristics that are unintended and unpredictable from individual actions, Lin explains that “once a system is in place, it inevitably becomes the dominant aspect of social life [pg 142],” or, in essence, the dominant social capital available. Then, the imposition on individuals is increasingly pervasive. For example, Lin introduces the concept of social solidarity as a form of capital [pg 160], where the result is survival and persistence. If a woman is outnumbered between 5 to 1 in her high school and college engineering courses, and 10 to 1 in industry, it is reasonable to assume that a lack of access to the social solidarity of the masculine culture may deter persistence and ultimately “survival” in these environments. Lin adds, “both economic and social standings enhance an individual’s power and influence in the structure (over other members) and, thus, the individual’s psychic well-being and physical survival as well [pg 150].” In looking specifically at an industry setting, the lack of access to the social capital created by the historical male environment weakens a women’s individual power and influence in the structure, and can affect a woman’s welfare and success in a high tech industry.


This essay examined the theory of social capital, as described in Nan Lin’s book, Social Capital: A Theory of Social Structure and Action, and connected the theory with the experiences of young women along the STEM pipeline. The correlation supports a hypothesis that there is a social capital that is not easily attained by the women: including the beginning – in their K-12 science and math classes, into their university programs, and finally, in industry as well. Stereotypes and implicit biases reinforce the historically male culture in STEM disciplines, and this is perpetuated throughout the STEM pipeline as a dominant culture that creates a solidarity which is often, though hopefully unintentionally, exclusive to women. This aligns with previous research that identified a capital deficit by females prevailed in all three types of capital: human capital, institutional capital, and social capital [pp 102-109]*.  But there is hope! As educators, we can engineer equity in education.


As an educator, it may feel like an insult for someone to suggest that you are biased in the classroom, or you may feel overwhelmed at the task of compensating for centuries of imbedded cultural biases. Here are a just few suggestions and recommendations for changing the social capital dynamic in your classroom:

[list5]<li>We all have biases, each and every one of us. By understanding what biases you may have, you will be able to take steps to conquer them! Take the Implicit Association test, (I recommend the Gender/Science and Gender/Career tests) reflect on the results, and increase your personal awareness. Have your students take the test, and talk about it as a class.</li>

<li>Read Whistling Vivaldi: And Other Clues to How Stereotypes Affect Us (Issues of Our Time) by Claude Steele, and learn about stereotype threat. Think about what stereotypes exist in your classroom that may be impeding student belonging, or success. Challenge your students to kindly recognize and point out when these stereotypes make an appearance in your classroom.</li>

<li>Teach young women that though stereotypes and biases exist against women in STEM, women can succeed and make great engineers, scientists, technologists, and mathematicians.</li>

<li>Change the conversation about engineering and STEM careers. Let’s stop talking about difficult calculus problems and long hours slaving in the lab… that is terrible marketing!  Start talking about how important STEM careers are to not only our world, but also our economy. Engineers make a world of difference, and help shape the future by creating products and processes that are essential to our health, happiness, and safety. This language is not only true, but significantly more attractive and more accessible to all students.</li>[/list5]

To help women succeed in the STEM pipeline, we must increase our awareness of the social capital that is at times not accessible to them. As educators we can work to address these gaps in our classrooms, and we can teach young women how to recognize the gaps and to not be discouraged. As our culture continues to evolve, perhaps the implicit biases will fade as we work to disprove stereotypes. Until then, let us be vigilant and aware of our words and deeds, and make extra effort to inspire and encourage young women to pursue careers in STEM.

Readers Chime In

Let me know what you think about the idea that the STEM pipeline is influenced by a social capital that is not as accessible to women.

Lin, N. (2002). Social capital: A theory of social structure and action. Cambridge, UK, Cambridge Univ Press.

Good, C., Rattan, A., & Dweck, C.S. (2012). Why do women opt out? Sense of belonging and women’s representation in mathematics. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 102(4), 700.

Hill, C, Corbett, C, & St Rose, A. (2010). Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. American Association of University Women, 134.

* (1998 study in urban China, 3050 respondents)


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3 Responses

  1. Great essay. I found the point about women choosing careers that seemed more socially helpful interesting, because it demonstrates how STEM educators aren’t being clear enough about how science, math, and technology help people.

    1. Hi Chandra, Thanks for your comment! There are studies that show that the younger generations, regardless of gender & ethnicity, are interested in making a difference in this world over other work values. Thus it is important for our educators to understand that STEM careers are tremendously influential to making our world a better place, in order to attract all students, not just young women.

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