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10/31/19 | Education, Menu-Homepage

To Close the STEM Gender Gap, We Have to Address the Hard Issues

Despite our best efforts, the STEM gender gap isn’t closing at an acceptable rate. And the gap is more prevalent in some areas than others. “Over 30 years, the percentage of engineering bachelor’s degrees awarded to women has risen very little and currently hovers around 20%,” says Jeanne W. Christman, PhD, associate professor and associate department chair of Computer Engineering Technology at Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT).

“Girls are now graduating high school with as many science and math credits as their male classmates and slightly higher grades in those subjects,” she says. “They have achieved equal math performance (as measured by standardized tests) as boys, and comprise approximately 50% of all college math majors.”

In addition, Christman says most universities have women in engineering or women in STEM organizations to provide academic and social support for their female students.  However, the gender gap is still not closing in engineering.

What are the issues causing women to avoid or leave STEM programs and fields in general, and engineering in particular?  It turns out that they are both cultural and structural, and until we address them, closing the gender gap will remain a pipe dream.

Biases, Stereotypes, and Peer Pressure

Cultural biases are hard to dispel, and whether they’re conscious or not, the effect is the same. “Cultural factors include gender stereotyping and communication by loved ones/teachers/peers that girls might not have the aptitude nor inclination for STEM professions,” explains Beena Sukumaran, vice president for research, professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, and former department head of the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department at Rowan University in Glassboro, NJ. 

She warns that gender biases cause lasting damage. “The stereotype threat is real, and if young girls are told that they might not be as good in math or science due to their gender, they do not pursue STEM professions,” Sukumaran says. And to be clear, this message is being communicated in a variety of ways. Imagine the thousands of girls who grew up with a Teen Talk Barbie doll that declared, “Math is hard!”

Nada Anid, PhD, is vice president for strategic communications and external affairs at the New York Institute of Technology, and the first woman dean of the NYIT School of Engineering and Computing Sciences. She says that toys and popular culture reinforce the fact that girls are met with lower expectations. “In addition to the Teen Talk Barbie that spouted the math-is-hard phrase for years, there are also pink and purple aisles of passive games for girls, and action and tech-filled games in the darker-colored boys’ aisles,” Anid says.

Unfortunately, girls aren’t just getting this message from marketers. “Research shows that teachers call more on boys in math and science classes,” Anid says. And by middle school, when they reach puberty, she says girls tend to lose confidence at the same time that boys are willing to take more risks, and are not as fearful about giving a wrong answer.

However, sometimes, peer pressure is the biggest factor discouraging girls from pursuing STEM. “Even if teachers are supportive in the classroom, if the young girls’ peers are telling them that they don’t belong in a computer science classroom or in advanced math, young girls have an uphill battle,” Sukumaran says, adding that she speaks from firsthand experience.

The Education Environment/Curricula

The education system is structured in such a way that it tends to hinder, rather than encourage women in STEM. The barriers are numerous and complex.  “It is time to stop trying to ‘fix’ women engineering students or supporting them to ‘fit in,’ and start changing the environment that excludes them,” Christman says. “Girls are not the issue, the culture in engineering education is the problem.”

And this long-established male-normed culture decides what content is taught and how it is delivered. For example, Christman says women and other minorities often have different learning styles and different career aspirations. “Many women choose to study engineering because they have a desire to change the world or make a difference.” However, she says the emphasis is typically placed on high tech and the drive to make the next product that will generation millions of dollars in profits. 

“Topics such as ethics and the socio-cultural implications of technology are lumped with career preparation and economics in a single class that is used to meet ABET requirements.” And while these are the topics women care about, Christman says they’re not introduced in core engineering courses.

Yet another problem is that women students may not stay in a STEM field long enough to even make it to the core classes. “While some universities are making moves to change the curriculum, many stick to the model that has been around forever, in which the first year of engineering consists of Calculus I & II, Physics I & II, Chemistry I & II, two liberal arts courses and two programming courses,” Christman explains.

However, notice that engineering is not one of the courses. Christman compares this first-year initiation to fraternity hazing,  and says it’s designed to weed out students not ‘fit’ to become engineers.

“The first year is extremely tough on all students, but is more likely to cause women than men to feel rejected and discouraged and, thus, not cut out for engineering,” she says. The classes are unreasonably hard, and this takes a greater toll on women for two reasons. “Women have the tendency to hold themselves to a higher standard than men in fields that are considered masculine, and also, despite having equal ability in math and science, women have lower self-esteem and associated lower self-efficacy in these subjects.”

 And since these classes are not taught in engineering departments, they make no specific connections to engineering applications. “All of this serves to further distance women from the subject they came to college to study,” Christman explains. Although first year attrition rates among first year engineering students are around the same among both genders, there is one important difference: 

“Women leave with higher GPA’s than their male classmates,” she says. “Women who switch majors out of engineering can do the work, they just choose not to.”

Returning to how engineering education is also biased toward male students, there is a preference to teach in a lecture format that focuses on equation solving. “The sage-on-a-stage delivery method in engineering classes is most common, as professors believe that it must be good because that is how they learned,” Christman says. And these professors often use examples that mirror their interests – such as automobiles and sports, but she believes these examples may not be of interest to women students.

“Professors also tend to assign problem sets out of the textbooks rather than framing problems in the context of real-world situations, and expect these problems sets to be completed by each student individually.” By taking this approach, women students looking to connect with classmates through collaborative work are alienated. “The list goes on, with such cultural norms as competition, shouting out answers in class and the acceptance of ‘locker room talk,’” Christman says. All of these factors combine to thwart efforts to increase the number of women in the field. 

In fact, Sukumaran says even the emphasis placed on standardized tests for admissions to STEM programs leaves women and other populations out.  

The Elephant in the Room: Harassment

Persecution (for lack of a better word) also hinders efforts to close the STEM gender gap. “A ‘wicked problem’ that exists in many academic work and learning environments within STEM is the existence of organizational cultures that are conducive to sexual harassment, most commonly gender harassment,” says Margaret Bailey, Ph.D., professor in mechanical engineering and interim director of AdvanceRIT at Rochester Institute of Technology.  

One example includes the Physics Conference Diaries, in which women members of the American Physics Society shared their impressions from a Division of Nuclear Physics Fall Meeting. Adrienne R. Minerick, Ph.D, dean of the School of Technology and professor of Chemical Engineering at Michigan Technological University, sent me this link, along with the following explanation: “These are a series of slights whereby the slighter feels superior or elevated, and these type of interactions are ubiquitous.” Some of the diary entries include attendees overhearing male senior physicists complain about having to invite more women as speakers, another male physicist being asked questions relevant to a woman scientist’s research who suggested they continue the discussion at the bar, and then recommended going to his room; and an armed guard at the conference who joked about shooting all women physicists. 

In case you think these are isolated incidents at one conference, consider this: in June of this year, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences voted to allow expulsion of members for breaches of its Code of Conduct, including sexual harassment.”

Minerick believes that both the diaries and the NAS vote are relevant to the STEM gender gap because they show how value is bestowed differently upon outcomes produced by majority and minority individuals.

“Some dimensions of culture and practice are overt and many, many more are subvert,” she says. “Overt actions include such things as public statements, active efforts to block access, prosecutable sexual harassment, et cetera.” However, for every overt act, Minerick says that are more than 10 subvert actions that range from macro-aggressions to micro-aggressions and gender discriminations.  “Just as the Grand Canyon developed by moving macro-rocks and micro-particles, the sheer volume of macro-aggressions and micro-aggressions washes away non-majority, non-conforming individuals like women trying to close the STEM gender gap.”   

In addition, she says the National Institutes of Health (NIH) requires institutions to share reports of sexual harassment, and Minerck hopes this means the organization will discontinue funding when there is a track record of sexual harassment or gender discrimination.  “Starting with the massive overt boulders will remove a portion of the benefit that majority individuals gain from their poor behavior,” she admits.  “However, the hard issue is that there remains benefit to the aggressor, and so the behaviors persist and in persisting, keep washing out the women and other non-majority individuals.”  

Possible Solutions

So, where do we go from here? Just as there’s more than one factor contributing to the problem, the solution will also require a multipronged approach. 

Anid believes awareness of these issues by parents and teachers is one way to resolve them. “Campaigns to change pop culture depictions of STEM, along with strong female role models that girls can look up to—these should be our first steps.” And she says we should also boost the self-confidence of girls by offering them classes in entrepreneurship, pitching, decision-making, and risk-taking.

“Gender roles seems to be more entrenched in the developed world with color coded clothing and gendered toys, and we need to break down these barriers if we want to see any concrete changes,” Sukumaran says.  

She also points to the education system. “We have to start employing more inclusive teaching and learning practices in the classroom,” Sukumaran says. 

It’s important to reach girls before they become uninterested in STEM, and then engage them on a continuous basis. “By speaking at events targeting young females, such as the Grace Hopper Women in Computing Event to championing Accenture’s work with Girls who Code and Code.org, I am able to extol the benefits of working in this field, and pave the way for our future workers,” says Annette Rippert, senior managing director at Accenture Technology.

She encourages all women STEM leaders to inspire the girls and women in their network who are passionate about joining this field. “Through our communities, our schools and our businesses, we can help shape the next generation of female STEM leaders,” Rippert says. 

But it’s not just girls that need an education. Addressing cultural issues can help people recognize their biases and make corrections. “Over the grant period (2012-18), AdvanceRIT hosted 39 events on enhancing and improving campus culture including: unconscious bias education workshops, bystander awareness workshops using interactive theater, and ground rule discussions,” says Bailey. “Audiences have reached 628 unique participants (62% women, 38% men) and have included campus leaders, members of RIT’s Academic Senate, promotion/tenure committees, staff, department chairs, and faculty.” 

Nichelle McCall Browne is a serial tech entrepreneur, and a part of the .02% of black women founders in tech to raise venture capital. “This may not be a popular sentiment, but as women, we sometimes limit ourselves and the opportunities we could be pursuing in the field,” she says. Whether it is due to self doubt or not having enough role models and sponsors, she says women often feel they don’t have the ‘right experiences,’ and talk themselves out of opportunities. 

“I say all this to encourage women to push against what’s uncomfortable and not the norm; when one person – or several people – say no, keep searching for that one person (man or woman) who is willing to mentor or support you in your field,” Browne advises.  “Keep knocking on doors for the right opportunities and if they don’t come, create them.”

However, this doesn’t mean that the offenders should be ignored. “This can’t be resolved only by teaching the women and minority individuals resiliency,” warns Minerick. “The mental energy to ignore or to rise above the macro and micro-aggressions is a diversion of the mental energy focused on performing in STEM.”

She points out that majority individuals don’t have to endure this regular, repeated tax and can spend more mental energy on delivering results. “The benefit of the doubt in credibility gives majority individuals a delta plus that moves them ahead faster; decision makers hiring based on ‘gut-instincts’ means they elevate those individuals like them.” As such, Minerick say there are extensive behaviors and practices that are in place to maintain the status quo. And understanding this is crucial to making meaningful gains.

But women are 50% of the population, and that should count for something in the fight to close the gender gap. 

“In the end, STEM has no gender, and women should be able to contribute to every field of their choosing – they should be able to feel that they can do anything,” Anid says.  “And this is not just a gender issue, it’s an economic and workforce development issue.” 

Terri Williams

Terri Williams

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