Women in STEM fields: Academics and mentoring

The percentage of women studying STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math) in colleges is low—just 19 percent. STEM is often seen in academics as a boy’s club, and many colleges are having trouble attracting and retaining women in science and technology. Here are some ways colleges are encouraging women to study STEM and how an effective and sympathetic mentor can help them graduate.

The percentage of women studying STEM fields is low, some colleges are finding ways to change that. (Credit: Research Matters)

The percentage of women studying STEM fields is low, some colleges are finding ways to change that. (Credit: Research Matters)

Women underrepresented in STEM

Although women lead men in college enrollment and graduation rates, men still vastly outnumber women in the number of graduates in STEM fields. The American Association of University Women reported that in 2010, women earned only 20 percent of bachelor’s degrees in physics, engineering and computer science. The reasons women tend not to pursue STEM degrees include:

• misconceptions of what it’s like to be an engineer

• scarce number of peers to study with

• too few role models and mentors

• fewer opportunities than boys to study science in K-12 classes

• stereotype that technology is linked with masculinity.

Advice to encourage women

In “How to Encourage Women to Consider STEM Majors,” Alicia Abella, executive director of technical research at AT&T Labs, offers advice for women who feel they might not succeed in STEM courses: “The mentoring and coaching is important. If they can find somebody they feel they can trust and talk to, to get advice from, that’s important. Maybe joining peer groups is important for people. On campuses, there are certainly tech clubs, women’s clubs—something where people who are experiencing similar challenges can get together and, in a sense, encourage each other to push onward.”

Support systems encourage women

Dimitra L. Jackson agrees on the importance of mentors for women in STEM. In “Making the Connection: The Impact of Support Systems on Female Transfer Students in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM),” published in Community College Enterprise, Spring 2013, Jackson wrote: “The availability of student support systems and mentee-mentor relationships provide effective ways to increase the representation of women in STEM areas… Support systems allow students the opportunity to engage in discussion and activities with individuals, including family, faculty, staff, or administrators with whom they feel comfortable.”

Women’s colleges more supportive of STEM

Women’s colleges are more receptive to women in STEM majors and provide an atmosphere with less discrimination and peer pressure. They offer a supportive, nurturing, focused, research-based environment. They also prepare women to start a STEM career, obtain an advanced degree and arrange study opportunities and internships for women STEM students, reported Diane Propsner in “Why First-Year STEM Girls Attend Women’s Colleges” posted August 29, 2013, in Huffington Post.

In that article, Sue Turjman, a freshman studying medicine at all-women Mount St. Mary’s College, appreciates the mentoring she receives at the school. “I know that my professors will push me to my greatest ability, and it won’t matter that I’m a woman wanting a male-dominated profession… The Mount will give me an edge. I hope that going to a women’s college will even boost my grades without the little distractions,” said Turjman.

Ways to retain women in STEM

Studies have identified ways to increase and retain women in STEM fields:

• ensure that female college students are academically prepared and competent in math and science

• dismantle the “chilly” climate women often encounter in math and science-based classes

• revise “gendered” societal norms and expectations of what is appropriate for female students to study

• identify activities that are relevant to interests and educational goals in STEM fields

Resources for women in STEM majors and careers

National Institute for Women in Trades, Technology and Science (IWITTS): helps educators nationwide close the gender gap for women and girls in male-dominated careers such as technology, the trades and law enforcement.

Society of Women Engineers (SWE): SWE Scholarships support women pursuing ABET-accredited bachelor or graduate programs in engineering, engineering technology and computer science in the United States and Mexico. In 2013, SWE gave out more than 200 new and renewed scholarships valued at $550,000.

American Association of University Women (AAUW): a nationwide network of members and college/university partners who promote equity for women through advocacy, education, philanthropy and research.

Women of Innovation: gathers and celebrates outstanding women for their accomplishments in science, engineering, technology research, information technology, business analytics, technology education and mathematics.

Check out Questia’s Science and Technology and Education pages for more information.

Has a mentor helped encourage you through STEM studies?

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