Lesley McCollum earned her Bachelor’s degree in Physics and Mathematics and is a now a freshly minted PhD. You can follow her on Twitter @lesleyamccollum.
I am fortunate to say that if I had it to do over again, I wouldn’t change a thing. I studied physics in college and, as is not uncommon, was the only female from the department in my graduating class. However, being a female in physics did not define me as a student. I didn’t feel the need to prove myself or worry I was out of place. My story is positive, but unfortunately is not representative. Many women in STEM continue to face challenges such as fighting to have their voices heard, or feeling unwelcome in an environment where they are a minority. Not until years later did I realize the role that female leadership in our department played in my experience.
Our small physics department of six faculty members had two women, and one of these women served as department chair. The number sounds small, but a 1/3 representation is a glowing statistic compared to the 14% female faculty representation in physics as a whole.
Complex and layered reasons explain the lack of diversity in STEM, particularly in the more disparate fields such as physics. The reason for fewer women in these roles range from gender biases pruning females from this path early on, to the lack of accommodating work/life balance leading women to choose alternate paths later in their careers. The percentage of female faculty has been increasing; however, even for women who do pursue these positions, reports show that they still face barriers to gaining equal pay, and fewer end up in tenured positions.
While there won’t be any easy fix to this perennial issue, there is strong evidence to suggest that improving the environment in STEM fields can have a huge impact. As a female or minority in a field with little diversity, make yourself seen and available to younger students. Seeing someone successful who looks like them can give a minority student confidence—it lets them know that maybe they can do it too. The female faculty members in my department served as professors, role models, and mentors for me as an undergraduate student. I was able to see myself in their roles. So by pursuing a degree in physics, I didn’t feel like I was reaching into unwelcoming territory or up against unfavorable odds. Because of my successful female role models in physics, I didn’t doubt whether or not I belonged.
It’s not just my story that found a positive impact from female leadership, though. Studies show that female professors and career role models can positively impact a student’s aspirations for a science-related career [1,2]. A wealth of research demonstrates that mentors overall play an important role in a student’s decision to attend grad school, choose a particular doctoral program, stay in the program, and in their expectation of their own success. And in biological sciences, mentors increase persistence in science for female students .
Role models also directly affect academic performance by reducing stereotype threat. Stereotyped individuals tend to underperform in particular environments when worried their performance might perpetuate the negative stereotype. However, a successful role model in the student’s field can actually eliminate performance deficits that result from the stereotype. For example, female students in math who were exposed to a competent female role model prior to taking an exam, performed better—and just as well as male students—than without the exposure to a role model [4,5]. An introduction to a great female math instructor before the exam was all it took to actually improve test scores of the female students! And this extends beyond gender as well—it’s been observed in other minority groups in STEM fields, including Hispanic and African American students .
When I’m facing an issue with such complicated and systemic issues as diversity in STEM fields, I have a hard time knowing how to make a difference. Being a role model for a younger student in the field can be a great start by creating a more welcoming environment and letting them know it’s possible to follow their passion and be successful. Here are a few ideas for getting involved:
Become a mentor. Find out if your school has a program in place for pairing graduate students with younger graduate students or undergrads in a similar field. If not, contact department heads or program directors to ask if they have students interested in setting up a mentor/mentee relationship.
Join a support group. Many universities have groups for minority students to provide a support network. They can be great for opening discussion about barriers you may face as a minority in your field that others can’t relate to, and provide an avenue to discuss how you dealt with these barriers with younger students.
Visit schools in your community. Take a fun science demo to a classroom to get kids excited about science. Exposing kids early to role models in the community positively impacts their career aspirations and attitudes toward science by helping to reduce the white-male-scientist stereotype.
Be heard. Get involved in your student government association or join the recruiting committee to be a part of the effort to increase diversity of incoming students. This can also be a forum for bringing to light challenges that certain groups of students on campus may be facing.
Do you have a role model in your field that has inspired you? Please share in the comments!
 Lockwood, P (2006). “Someone like me can be successful”: Do college students need same-gender role models? Psychology of Women Quarterly 30: 36–46.
 Young DM, Rudman LA, Buettner HM, McLean MC (2013). Influence of female role models on women’s implicit science cognitions. Psychology of Women Quarterly 37: 283-292.
 Campbell A, Skoog G (2004). Preparing undergraduate women for science careers. Journal of College Science Teaching 33: 24–26.
 Marx DM, Roman JS (2002). Female role models: Protecting women’s math test performance. Pers Soc Psychol Bull 28: 1183-1193.
 McIntyre RB, Lord CG, Gresky DM, Ten Eyck LL, Bond, CF (2005). A social impact trend in the effects of role models on alleviating women’s mathematics stereotype threat. Curr Res Soc Psychol 10: 116-136.
 Marx DM, Goff PA (2005). Clearing the air: The effect of experimenter race on target’s test performance and subjective experience. Br J Soc Psychol 44: 645–657.
[Image by Flickr user Jabiz Raisdana and used under Creative Commons Licensing]