Attracting Women to STEM

Analysis considers reasons for the continuing (if shrinking) gender gap.
March 22, 2010

Active recruiting and positive messaging can go a long way toward shrinking the gender gap in many science and engineering fields, an analysis released today by the American Association of University Women suggests.

In "Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics,” funded in part by the National Science Foundation, three AAUW researchers have collected the findings of dozens of other studies to produce a report on challenges that girls and women face at every step of the way in studying and working in STEM fields. The report also catalogs programs and attitudes that have been found to be successful in attracting and keeping women in STEM.

Described by co-author Andresse St. Rose, an AAUW research associate, as “a big lit review,” the report is not intended to be groundbreaking in its findings, but rather to publish all the best research on women in STEM in one booklet. “Very often there’s a lot of good research going on that gets printed in academic journals,” she said, “but the people who could use it don’t necessarily look there to find it.”

In examining hundreds of studies, St. Rose and her co-authors -- Catherine Hill, AAUW’s director of research, and Christianne Corbette, a research associate – found eight major factors that helped depress the numbers of girls and women in STEM: beliefs about intelligence, stereotypes, self-assessment, spatial skills, the college student experience, university and college faculty, implicit bias, and workplace bias.

Though women made up the majority of U.S. undergraduates in 2007, colleges and universities awarded 138,874 STEM bachelor’s degrees to men and just 88,371 to women, the report notes, citing 2009 NSF statistics. More than half of STEM degrees awarded to women were in the biological sciences, where women make up the majority of students overall. (Women earned 48,001 bachelor’s degrees in the field, while men earned 31,347 in 2007.) Totals were substantially smaller for women than for men in physics, engineering and computer science.

But the report includes discussion of two studies of institutions that have been able to draw women to their undergraduate majors in those fields.

The Carnegie Mellon University School of Computer Science was able to expand its undergraduate major from 7 percent female to 42 percent female in the span of five years by doing more to actively recruit female applicants, changing admission requirements to include less prior experience with programming, and changing the “peer culture” of the major. A study that looked at physics department with larger-than-average female enrollments, as well as at historically black colleges and universities and women’s colleges, found that active recruiting, departmental social activities, and informal mentoring groups for female students and faculty could help attract and retain female majors.

More broadly, what the studies found was that “the climate of the department makes a really big difference about who’s attracted to the major, who chooses to stay in the major and eventually graduates,” St. Rose said. “The active recruitment of students is absolutely necessary. That’s a no-brainer but a lot of departments don’t do it, they just say, ‘Students will choose the majors they decide on,’ but inviting students to take an introductory course or to consider the major can really help.”

Even if a woman persists to earn a bachelor’s degree, a doctorate and a faculty job in a STEM field, she’s more likely than her male colleagues to be dissatisfied with her job, found Cathy A. Trower, research director of the Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education. In a 2008 survey of 587 women and 1,222 men in STEM faculty jobs at 56 universities, Trower found that, overall, women were less satisfied on all 10 of the climate-related criteria about which they were asked, including fairness in evaluation by supervisors, personal and professional interaction with colleagues, and how well they “fit” in their departments.

The recommendations: conduct departmental reviews to find out what the climate’s like for female faculty and then change the climate to make it more comfortable for them; provide mentoring for junior faculty; adopt policies that allow for work-life balance, like the option to stop the tenure clock for male and female faculty.


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