How Colleges Can Support Women in STEM

  • July 21, 2017
How Colleges Can Support Women In STEM

The US Bureau of Statistics reports that women represent 46.7% of the labor force, yet less than ¼ hold computer or mathematical occupations and only about 15% are in an engineering or architecture occupation.

While 57% of bachelor’s degrees over the past 10 years belong to women, a disproportionate amount of women receive degrees in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) compared to men. And when they do achieve a degree in STEM, they’re less likely than their male counterparts to work in a STEM occupation.

The trend of women entering more humanities focused professions, while men aspire to be engineers or scientists, starts in elementary schools and travels all the way into the workforce. From Halloween costumes to movies, stereotypes like “nursing = woman” or “astronaut = man” have been impressed upon children since kindergarten.

Why is increasing the percentage of women in STEM so important? Well, for starters, it would have a direct impact on the gender gap that desperately needs to be closed. According to a recent Pew Research study, women earned $0.83 to every $1 that a man earned in 2015. Since careers in STEM pay significantly more than other industries, if we were to increase the percentage of women in STEM to 50%, the gender gap would significantly (if not completely) decrease.

But the closing the gender gap isn’t the only benefit of increasing the percentage of women in STEM. Participation from women in the science and technology is crucial to developing unbiased technology and scientific advances for the future. Studies have shown that employing different perspectives and abilities greatly increases the chances of innovation. Additionally, studies have found that companies that employ more women consistently outperform their competitors.

So how can colleges encourage women to enter into STEM fields? Below, we outline five key strategies that have been proven to make an impact.

 

  1. Promote STEM early.

Stereotypes about what types of careers women belong in start early. It may start with something as simple as a mother telling her daughter that “mommy isn’t good at math, ask daddy”. However, statements like these only promote the stereotype, and reinforce the thought that women aren’t “made” to study math or science.

While it’s difficult for colleges or universities to step in as early as kindergarten, they can begin to foster the idea of women succeeding in science and math with every touch point they have with students in middle school and high school. Ohio State has created a “Women in Engineering” program that is designed to increase the number of women earning degrees in engineering. They hold outreach events including elementary, middle and high school camps and one-day events that are designed to introduce girls to a wide variety of careers and opportunities that are available to engineers. These events offer hands-on projects that help boost interest in STEM at a young age, and show girls that they can be the problem-solvers of their generation.

 

  1. Create a mentorship program.

A recent study by a professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst suggests that female engineer undergraduates were much more likely to participate in problem solving group activities when they made up more than half the group. Furthermore, survey data showed that female mentors positively influenced mentee’s retention, and their feeling of confidence in continuing to a career in engineering.

Having a female mentor can be a huge motivating factor, as it allows students to visualize themselves in that role or a similar career. Mentorship programs not only increase confidence in female students, but they also act as a support mechanism for students that are struggling in a particular area or need guidance on their career path. University of California, Irvine’s Undergraduate Mentorship program matches students with mentors with similar backgrounds and interests, increasing the likelihood of a supportive and influential relationship.

That feeling of “belonging” is a direct factor that increases retention rates of women in STEM. Studies have shown that “women students who have either had one-on-one contact with or media-exposure to same-gender professors, experts, or peers, experience the belonging feeling.”

While it can take some time and resources to develop a mentorship program from the ground up, starting with current female STEM students is a great way to start. Since juniors or seniors are closer in age to freshmen or sophomores, they can have a very powerful effect when serving as a peer mentor to incoming students.

 

  1. Promote women in STEM on your website and in your marketing materials.

When it comes to encouraging women to study industries in STEM, perceptions matter. As Jocelyn Goldfein, Facebook’s Director of Engineering, “The reason there aren’t more women computer scientists is because there aren’t more women computer scientists.”

One example of this issue can be demonstrated by simple Google search for “engineering careers”. Below is the first image that pops up when searching this term.

engineering careers

 

As you’ll see, the term engineering brings up an image of two men looking at solar panels. While this is just a small example, it demonstrates the need to showcase females in these roles, in order to show women that they belong in STEM fields.

Showcasing stories and images of women engineers or scientists on university websites or brochures can be an instrumental factor in helping female students decide that a STEM field is right for them. For example, one female engineering student admitted that reading biographies of award receipts at a Society of Women Engineers Conference helped to solidify her decision to work toward her doctorate.

 

  1. Reduce the intimidation factor.

While many colleges still have a long way to go in increasing the percentage of women in STEM majors, Harvey Mudd has made strides. The latest computer science graduates at Harvey Mudd were 55% female, compared to roughly 10% a decade ago. These significant gains are due in large part to a realization that in order to change computer science’s traditional reputation, they needed to rethink the way it was taught.

Harvey Mudd’s introductory computer science course, known as CS 5, focused on hard-core programming, something that appealed to young men (often seasoned programmers) who made up most of the class. To make the course more approachable, the course was divided into two sections – one for those with no prior experience, and one for everyone else. They also replaced Java with Python, a much more accessible language. These tactics broke down barriers female students may have had, like not having any previous coding experience.

Dartmouth, who’s graduating class at its school of engineering was 40% female this past year, also reduced the barrier to entry for the introduction to engineering course, requiring only a basic math course as a pre-requisite. Instead of focusing on writing intense code from the start, Dartmouth focuses on tackling societal issues, like energy efficiency or the quality of life for seniors. By integrating problem-solving topics that effect society, female students became more motivated to develop the skills needed to solve these problems.

 

  1. Introduce students to all types of successful female role models

As mentioned above, female role models are crucial to inspiring the younger generation of women to enter fields in STEM, as well as in supporting them in pursuing a STEM-related career.

If female students are only hearing about male engineers or founders, learning from male professors, and listening to success stories from men, then a female student can’t help but feel like they don’t belong in the industry. If a student can’t look at a successful individual in their field and think “that could be me”, the likelihood that they’ll continue on to successful career in the field in much more unlikely.

Bringing female role models to campus or to speak at women in STEM groups is crucial to empowering female students and making them feel welcome in STEM fields. Even more important — showcasing a diverse range of women that are succeeding in STEM industries. For example, highlighting stories of women from different ethnic backgrounds, lifestyles (ex. mothers), and upbringings (ex. low-income families) is crucial to showing students that ALL types of women can succeed in STEM.

In a Pew Research from 2015, 42% mothers said that in some point in their life, they had to take a significant amount of time off to care for a child or other family member (compared to 28% of fathers). Historically, women tend to the think that careers in humanities will be more flexible with parental leave, and that careers in STEM are hard to manage with a family. While some companies are still in need of modernizing their benefit programs, a wide variety of companies today are much more flexible with their benefits. By showing young women role models of established women in STEM with families, they can forget the stereotype that the words “mother” and “scientist” or “engineer” don’t mix.

While the strategies listed above can be extremely impactful, implementing them all at once can be resource intensive. Taking on all these strategies at once may not be possible for one person, but by forming a committee or group at a college or university, staff and faculty members can work together to move the needle at their institution. Gathering more data early on and better understanding what is driving students decisions using Comevo’s Decision PathForks™ tool can help schools better engage with their students early on in their journey in school.