Taking time to think about expectations for women in undergraduate science

Decades of research in higher education has sought to understand why students come to STEM fields and why they leave. This has been especially true for women in science degree programs.

February 26, 2013

Decades of research in higher education has sought to understand why students come to STEM fields and why they leave. This has been especially true for women in science degree programs. Efforts such as Sue Rosser’s 1990 Female Friendly Science sought to re-organize science and engineering programs and change teaching practices to attract and retain female students. Drawing on insights from women’s studies and cultural studies, she proposed that they put greater emphasis on cooperative work and practical applications and broaden curricula to include more opportunities to explore the history and culture of science. Decades later, there are still significant gaps in women’s participation and persistence, especially in physics and physics-related engineering disciplines such as mechanical and electrical, despite efforts to overcome preparation deficits, provide role models and mentoring, and build communities for women in sciences.

Accordingly, we must acknowledge this is a more complex problem. There are tangled webs of expectations that influence all students’ experiences in science degree programs. When students arrive on those very first days, they bring with them expectations of post-secondary science education handed down from their families and teachers, in addition to their own. They also run headlong into what their professors, lab instructors and peers expect of them. And sometimes the results are disheartening and hard to navigate.

The programs themselves sometimes create expectations for who students should be. Lars Ulriksen from the University of Copenhagen has described this as ‘the implied student,’ inspired by the literary concept of the implied reader. This is a way of thinking about all of the assumptions that are embedded in any text about what the reader would and should think and feel. It describes what a reader must bring with them to the text to make sense of it. Analogically, the implied student is seen in the set of expectations placed on students by every element of their degree program, from the course outlines to teaching practices to what the professors, instructors, and peers say and do. All of these paint a picture for students of whether their science program is really for someone like them. And it’s here where many female students encounter difficulties in meeting the expectations. Karen Tonso’s 2006 ethnography of undergraduate engineers, for example, illustrates several incidents where students struggle with the strongly masculine expectations associated with the implied student in their program.

In order to understand the challenges faced by women in science, I’ve followed the lead of others like Tonso and Heidi Carlone and thought of these expectations as part of an identity process. As students progress in their science studies, part of the learning process is developing an identity within a scientific community. This means seeing yourself as belonging in the community and, through your actions and abilities, receiving that same recognition from others.For example, Carlone and Johnson (2007) worked with 15 successful women of colour in science, meeting them first during their undergraduate studies and following up six years later when most had moved on to graduate studies or medical school. The ease or difficulty of that path from undergraduate studies to graduation and beyond was largely influenced by how much recognition they received from others, such as professors and peers, about meeting the expectations of being a science student. Those who held strong science identities received heartfelt and positive support and feedback from mentors and senior scientists. In contrast, there was another group of women who began their undergraduate studies with interest and motivation in science but became increasingly disillusioned and frustrated. Despite being strong students, their rocky experiences were reflected in the feedback they received from supervisors and professors suggesting that they shouldn’t be there or were not the right kind of science students.

Taking a similar approach, I had the opportunity to work with colleagues who had led the Persistence Research in Science and Engineering (PRiSE) project, where they surveyed college students nationally about their high school science experiences as well as their attitudes towards science in higher education. We looked in particular at students’ physics identities. Two of the main components were how strongly they felt they met the expectations of physics and how much recognition they received from others about meeting those expectations. Those with well-developed physics identities, and who had received important positive recognition, were at least three times more likely to want to pursue a physics degree. And what was single most important predictor of how strongly students held a physics identity? Their gender. Even when high school experiences, GPAs, and career orientations were taken into account, male students had significantly stronger identities, meaning that they saw themselves meeting the expectations of physics better and received more recognition from teacher, parents and peers. This is despite ongoing research showing that male and female students are not very different in the raw skills that they bring to physics programs (e.g., Hyde & Linn, 2006). As Tonso’s engineering students found, gender expectations related to masculinity and femininity can’t be ignored when we think about what pushes and pulls students in and out of science degree programs.

These kinds of studies show that the constraints felt by female STEM students, and all students, go far beyond academic preparation and ability.  It’s sometimes hard to imagine how expectations like these that come not just from curricula and tests but from every interaction that students have with their professors and their peers can be changed. There are definitely no easy solutions, but it’s important to start thinking about things this way. For example, how can mentorship and development programs not only provide role models and skills but also help students navigate these expectations? How can program leaders and professors begin to ask if there is room to change the implied student that incoming registrants encounter? The first step, at least, is always asking the question.

Marie-Claire Shanahan is an Associate Professor of Science Education & Science Communication at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. When not writing at her blog, Boundary Vision, or hanging out with her students, Marie-Claire is a regular guest host on the science radio program Skeptically Speaking. She also writes about two of her favourite things, science and music, as DJ at the online science pub The Finch & Pea, where she squeezes in as much Canadian independent music as she thinks she can get away with. She tweets as @mcshanahan, can be found on Google+, and reached at mcshanahan at gmail.com.


Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.


Back to Top