Report Examines Why Women are Under-represented in STEM Fields - Higher Education

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Report Examines Why Women are Under-represented in STEM Fields

by Lois Elfman

Studies have shown that girls and young women express interest in math and science at similar rates as boys and young men, but somewhere between that initial interest and graduation from college they have chosen another path. Conventional theory has been that females are less interested or less adept at math and science than males, but research has shown another story.

“In schools and in homes the environment that is created serves to subtly and perhaps in some cases not so subtly discourage girls or encourage them to focus on other areas, even if they might have a brimming interest and ability in science,” said Dr. Andresse St. Rose, one of the contributors to “Why So Few: Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.”

The report, published by the American Association of University Women (AAUW) and funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation, involves a review of literature about gender and science published over the past 15 years. The contributors examined what some of the findings have regarded as the reasons why women and girls remain under-represented in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

Also being published today are the results of a national survey conducted by the Bayer Corporation in which approximately 40 percent of the 1,226 women and minority chemists and chemical engineers surveyed said they were discouraged from pursuing a STEM career at some point in their lives. Other findings include the observation that regardless of gender, race or ethnicity interest in science begins in early childhood.

The AAUW report shows the same. It notes that “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 those fields.”

“The evidence shows that in college many women who start off in STEM majors [don’t complete them],” said St. Rose. “Clearly, if they’re in these majors there is a desire. They’ve shown some ability and talent in these areas earlier on. But many capable young women leave these majors.

“They’re not leaving because they’re unsuccessful,” she added. “The research we looked at and that we talk about in the report says the climate of some of these college departments don’t facilitate women’s participation and progress. … They leave because they feel unwelcome or they just haven’t fit in.”

The culture of a department— the expectations, assumptions and values — shapes how professors and staff behave, which impacts students directly. The literature showed female undergraduates in STEM majors often reported lower confidence than their male counterparts for a variety of reasons, including professors being overly critical and at times not supportive, and male students being antagonistic. The female students described a sense of feeling like they didn’t belong or fit in. Also, some research examined touched on issues of women being perceived as not likeable if they pursued non-traditional fields. That was of concern to some female undergraduates in STEM majors.

Recommendations in the report include doing outreach to high schools and encouraging girls to pursue STEM fields if they have an interest. Academic departments should put forth an inclusive, gender-neutral message about who would be a good computer science student, address peer culture and broaden the scope of early coursework. The final recommendation is applicable to both women and minority males, who seem more drawn to multidisciplinary and broader applications.

One piece of literature praised in the AAUW report focused on how HBCUs successfully create effective and supportive department cultures in the STEM fields. The Bayer study notes that among the top-three reasons women and minorities are under-represented is lack of quality science and math education programs in middle and high school because of economic conditions. HBCUs provide a path with courses and other tools for those who have an interest but may not have entered college prepared to pursue such a major.

“What we found in the research we profile in the report is that STEM departments need to do more active recruitment of students,” says St. Rose. “If faculty do active recruitment and welcome in these students, then they’re more likely to attract women and men from under-represented groups.”

Things as simple as sponsoring department social activities or having a student lounge can help increase the number of women STEM majors.

Both reports also focus on career roadblocks for those who graduate with degrees in STEM fields. The Bayer survey found that women and minority chemists and chemical engineers encountered significant amounts of managerial bias, institution bias and lack of professional development and networking opportunities.

The AAUW report notes that at colleges and universities many STEM departments have only one or two female faculty members. Many report dissatisfaction early in their careers.

“They feel like they don’t belong, they don’t fit in,” said St. Rose. “The keys to that are interactions with senior faculty and feeling they receive a fair assessment. In social interactions, that’s where relationships brim. That could lead to more informal mentoring, professional development or just introduction to a wider network of peers. We struggle in being integrated in that way.”

“We recommend all faculties put in a mentoring system,” she continues. “Administrators in these departments should be ensuring that all their junior faculty have access to mentoring and they monitor their mentoring program to make sure that it’s progressive and useful and no one feels left out.”

President Barack Obama launched the “Educate to Innovate” campaign to improve participation and performance in STEM areas. These reports provide suggestions on how to remove unnecessary barriers and enable women and minorities to succeed.

The AAUW report is available at www.aauw.org/WhySoFew

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