In its just-issued report "Women in STEM: A Gender Gap to Innovation" the U.S. Department of Commerce writes that while women fill close to half of all jobs in the U.S. economy, they hold less than 25 percent of science, technology, engineering, and math jobs.
The gender gap in STEM jobs persists despite the fact that more women now graduate from college than men and the fact that women in STEM fields tend to have more equitable wages compared to those in non-STEM jobs. Women major and earn degrees in STEM fields, creating a female talent pool, but they tend to pursue careers in education and health care.
Some may say, "Well, so what? There are some jobs men like, and some jobs women like." Or they may even argue that there are some fields for which one sex has a greater aptitude than the other.
As to the "so what," the answer can be found in the report's title. As long as there is a gender gap in these fields, there will be an innovation gap. And in today's global economy, the countries that lead do so through fostering technological innovation. Creating an environment where women can reach their full potential in the STEM fields is possible and can have impressive results.
Bryn Mawr College is in the top 10 among all colleges and universities in terms of the percentage of female graduates pursuing doctorates in the STEM fields. Our students are six times more likely to graduate with a degree in chemistry than college students nationwide and nine times more likely to do so in math. In fact, Bryn Mawr is second in the nation in the percentage of female students receiving degrees in math, beating out such science-oriented universities as the California Institute of Technology and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and has 18 times the national average of female students graduating in physics.
How do we do it? A large chunk of the credit has to go to the college’s founders, who from the beginning (when Bryn Mawr was the first institution to offer women the chance to earn a Ph.D.) offered women the chance to get an education that was the equal to the finest available to men of the era.
But our current success comes from more than just a history of access. Every year, students come to Bryn Mawr unsure of what they want to study, and many end up choosing STEM fields.
When we ask our STEM majors what it is about Bryn Mawr that encourages them to pursue these male-dominated fields we consistently hear two things – being exposed to role models among our faculty, alumnae, and their fellow students, and the positive effect of being in a classroom in which they aren't the lone woman.
Julia Ferraioli graduated from Bryn Mawr in 2007 with a degree in computer science. When she arrived she expected to major in archaeology and had even been steered away from some of the higher-level math courses at her high school. "Studying computer science at a women's college meant that I could concentrate on learning instead of being the representative of a gender," Julia told me via e-mail. "Gender became irrelevant instead of being something that defined me."
As a student, Julia got to know a Bryn Mawr computer science alumna who has worked at AOL and PayPal and is now a web development senior manager for Comcast. The alumna and Julia’s professors encouraged her to attend the Grace Hopper Celebration for Women in Computing, where she made the connection that led to a job at Microsoft after she graduated. Julia went on to earn a master's in computer science from the University of Rochester and was just featured as the "Geek of the Week" by the website GeekWire for her work as technical evangelist with DocuSign.
As a single-sex college, Bryn Mawr has, I believe, certain advantages in encouraging its students to succeed in fields that have been traditionally dominated by men. But all colleges and universities can learn from our practices and the best practices of others as they teach and mentor students, make hiring decisions and institute policy.
At Bryn Mawr we want to engage all types of students in STEM coursework and believe they all can succeed. Offering students a variety of entry points into the sciences allows those who arrive at college with advanced preparation to enroll in higher-level courses that immediately challenge them, while students who have had negative prior experiences in STEM coursework or poor preparation can take and enjoy courses at various points in the introductory level.
An institution can also use innovative pedagogy that teaches the applications of science to attract more students to STEM subjects. For example, in introductory courses in computer science at Bryn Mawr, students apply CS principles to create graphic design projects. Across the sciences, our lab exercises focus on problem-solving rather than the execution and replication of a series of instructions.
Finally, family-friendly policies encourage faculty to find balance between work and personal life, enabling faculty of both genders to pursue the path to tenure. Ultimately this means more women in the tenured faculty ranks in STEM fields. For example, in chemistry and math, 50 percent of Bryn Mawr’s tenured faculty are women.
Women have come a long way over the last 40 years in terms of educational attainment. Achievement in the STEM fields is one area where we can still do better. At this time, when progress in these fields is so important, it's an area where we must do better.
In the late 1990s, Raymond Bradley, a climatologist at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, collaborated with two researchers on a pair of studies that altered the dialogue on climate change. The studies, a collaboration between Bradley, a geophysicist named Michael Mann (then finishing up his Ph.D. at Yale University) and University of Arizona climatologist Malcolm Hughes, presented evidence of global climate change over the past millennium and set off a political firestorm.
With the return of students to campuses this month comes annual hand wringing over the lack of diversity in our science and engineering classes. The United States is at a 14-year low in the percentage of women (16.3 percent) and African Americans (7.1 percent) enrolling in engineering programs.
An engineering student body that is composed largely of white males is problematic not only because of its narrow design perspective, but also because failing to recruit from large segments of the population means the number of new engineers we produce falls well short of our potential.
Although this is not a new problem, it is becoming ever more urgent. We are faced with an engineering juggernaut emanating from India and China, with more than 10 Asian engineers graduating for every one in the United States. Educated at great institutions like the Indian Institutes of Technology or Tshingua University, these engineers are every bit as technically competent as their American counterparts.
So here we sit at the beginning of the 21st century, in the most technologically advanced nation on the planet, with a comparatively small supply of home grown engineers, facing an explosion of technical mental horsepower overseas.
Why fight the tide? Couldn’t we simply import all the engineering we need? Couldn’t we play the economic advantage and close our expensive colleges of engineering? Do we gain anything by educating engineers in the United States?
I would argue that, with a few exceptions, we really don’t. As they are currently trained, American engineers are at relative parity with their foreign-born counterparts, are more expensive, and offer no competitive advantage. But there is a way out of this predicament, one that would provide a raison d’etre for American engineering programs, and make for the kind of design the planet now so urgently needs.
Faced with the increasingly complex design challenges of the 21st century -- an era where resources of every kind are reaching their limit, human populations are exploding, and global-warming related environmental catastrophe beckons -- engineers need to grow beyond their traditional roles as problem-solvers to become problem-definers.
To catalyze this shift, our engineering curriculum, now packed with technical courses, needs a fresh start. Today’s engineers must be educated to think broadly in fundamental and integrative ways about the basic tenets of engineering. If we define engineering as the application of math and science in service to humanity, these tenets must include study of the human condition, the human experience, the human record.
How do we make room in the crowded undergraduate engineering curriculum for students to explore disciplines outside math and science – literature and economics, history and music, philosophy and languages – that are vital if we are to create a competitive new generation of engineering leaders? By scaling back the number of increasingly narrow, and quickly outmoded technical courses students are now required to take -- leaving only those that teach them to think like engineers and to gain knowledge to solve problems. Students need to have room to in their schedules for wide ranging elective study.
There is a need for advanced engineering training, to be sure, but the place for that is at the graduate level -- in one of the growing number of nine-month masters programs, perhaps.
Teaching engineers to think, in the broadest, cross-disciplinary sense, is critical. Consider two examples of the failures of the old way.
The breach of the levees in New Orleans, which has unleashed a torrent of human suffering, came about not solely because engineers designed for a category 3, rather than a category 4, hurricane. It was caused by decades of engineering and technical hubris, which resulted in loss of wetlands and overbuilding on a grand scale. Would engineers who had studied economics, ecology, anthropology, or history have acted the same?
Or consider Love Canal (or any of a thousand other environmental debacles of the last 50 years). Would designers who had read Thoreau’s Walden, studied Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, or admired Monet’s poppies have allowed toxic chemicals to be dumped into the environment so remorselessly?
To prepare our engineers to engage in the major policy decisions we’ll face over the next 25 years -- many of which hinge heavily on the implications of technological design -- we must truly rethink what they need to know when they graduate.
If we do, our progeny stand a fighting chance of having a life worth living. And by giving engineering a larger, more socially relevant framework, expanding it beyond the narrow world of algorithms, the field should prove more attractive to women, minorities, and other underrepresented groups.
Just imagine. A growing and increasingly diverse number of domestically trained engineers -- equipped with the broad insight and critical thinking skills the world needs, which will also give them a competitive advantage over their foreign counterparts.
Overhauling the engineering curriculum would be challenging to be sure, but it’s a design worth building.
Domenico Grasso is dean of engineering and mathematical sciences at the University of Vermont. He was the founding director of the Picker Engineering Program at Smith College and is vice chair of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Science Advisory Board.