Closing the Gap

August 18, 2011

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.

Bio

Jane McAuliffe is president of Bryn Mawr College.

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