BY JORI HAMILTON
For decades, we’ve been aware of the discrepancy between the number of men and women in STEM fields. Research has shown that this difference is due to a large number of social factors, as well as the environment of these male-dominated fields. Recognizing that the unequal representation of women is having negative effects on tech-related industries, STEM educators and advocates have looked for ways to bring more women into the field.
Although government- and industry-led education initiatives have made an effort to increase the number of women studying and pursuing STEM, there are many underlying issues that have prevented their success. A new study shows that one factor in the disillusionment of women in STEM is the unwelcoming and “chilly” campus culture that they are subjected to throughout their education. This type of environment can make women feel that their identities are incompatible with that of scientists — a feeling described as woman-scientist identity interference.
Unwelcoming Campus Culture
The study by Laura E. Jensen and Eric D. Deemer included 363 female undergrad STEM students and was titled “Identity, Campus Climate, and Burnout Among Undergraduate Women in STEM Fields.” Jensen and Deemer’s research found that the dissonance between a woman’s identity as a scientist created several emotionally challenging obstacles that interfered with their education, including emotional exhaustion and a lack of conviction in their ability to succeed.
In the U.S., 25% of STEM industry employees are women, many of which leave the industry after only a few years. Over the last 45 years, graduation rates for women in engineering have been stationary, even as more programs and scholarships encourage women to seek opportunities in these high-paying fields within stable industries. However, while these strategies aim to change the socialization aspect of women in STEM, they don’t change the environment women experience as they pursue their education.
Even outside of STEM education and industries, women have been excluded from many other career paths that have been traditionally male-dominated and seen as unfit for women. Trade positions provide a relatively stable job and income, which is why women have begun to stake their claim as plumbers as well as other professions.
Impact on Retention of Women
Even as women brave the societal expectations and boundaries imposed on them to seek better job opportunities, they must experience support and encouragement to stay in these fields. There are many ways schools and organizations can inspire young women to pursue and stay in STEM fields, including supporting their ideas and overall efforts.
By investing in the funding of their studies, as well as lending a hand when they need additional help or expert advice can encourage and support them to continue pursuing their education and goals. This is exactly what Invetech did with the Melbourne Girls’ College in Australia. To expose the students to more women in tech, Invetech’s female design and engineering staff mentored students at the school, helping them accomplish their tech goals and projects.
Impact on Inter sectional Identities
Even as valiant efforts are made to support women in STEM, the field will remain unequal in representation without active encouragement and investment to recruit diverse populations. Concordia University cited a National Science Foundation study that detailed the rates of different demographics working in science and engineering fields. These were:
- White men: 49%
- White women: 18%
- Asian men: 4%
- Asian women: 7%
- Black men: 3%
- Black women: 2%
- Hispanic men: 4%
- Hispanic women: 2%
These statistics make it clear that white men, who are considered the most socially privileged population, dominate STEM fields and, consequently, are working some of the highest-paying jobs available. This is a factor which plays into wage gaps between genders and races.
Addressing Cold Campus Culture
The first step to addressing a chilly campus culture as a factor in the lack of women in STEM is by raising awareness of the issue across campuses throughout the country and world. Although it’s difficult to determine the steps that could mitigate this issue and address the unwelcoming climate for women, large-scale, systemic changes must take place in order to have a far-reaching impact.
It would help to have access to inclusive communities for women, where participants could feel comfortable receiving additional assistance and tutoring. In order to feel supported by their educational program, this unwelcoming culture must be dissipated. Only when we’re able to break free of the vicious cycle of women avoiding STEM fields due to the lack of women in those industries will we be able to see true equality.
In order to do that, schools and legislators should work to address the low numbers of women in STEM. A call for a change in campus and industry culture, and steps to make such changes sustainable, could also encourage more women and minorities to pursue these fields. Through these efforts, diverse people can contribute their valuable perspectives to STEM industries that could benefit greatly from them.
Bio: Jori Hamilton is a writer from the Northwest who is passionate about education and social justice issues. You can follow her on Twitter @HamiltonJori