Supporting the Success of Women in STEM

Women's Engineering InstituteWomen have historically been underrepresented in some professional fields of study, in particular STEM fields such as physics, engineering, and computer science.  Implicit and explicit negative stereotypes about women and other underrepresented groups in STEM affect their interactions and success in school and the workplace.

There is no evidence of innate gender differences in math and science ability, but boys are more likely than girls to pursue careers in math-intensive fields such as engineering and physics.  Female STEM majors in college are more likely to drop out, transfer, or change to non-STEM majors than male students.  This also is not due to differences in ability.  Women are 1.5 times more likely to leave the STEM pipeline after taking Calculus I, for example, partly because of non-academic reasons such as a lack of mathematical confidence.

What are other reasons for why female students may leave STEM majors?  One reason involves their “sense of belonging” and their identification and connection with their chosen STEM profession.

“We found that women students who have had either one-on-one contact with, or media exposure to, same-gender professors, experts or peers, feel “I belong here.” This in turn makes them more confident about their abilities, more likely to persist in math, science, and engineering majors, and more interested in pursuing careers in these fields after graduation. This happens when female students see same-gender experts and peers in fields where they are typically a tiny minority, such as engineering, mathematics, computer science, physics, and astronomy.”  (Dasgupta, 2016)

What are some strategies you as a faculty member can use in your classroom, your department, and in your interactions with students to help support the success of female students?

  • Incorporate stories of the work of women scientists or engineers related to the content of the class, or invite female scientists or engineers to be guest speakers in your class. (Dasgupta, 2016)
  • “One of the things that we know works is to use team-based activities to create an environment where you’re not competing for grades and where everyone helps each other. You need an environment which not only values the people who answer the questions first, but tries to engage the entire class — rather than always having one or two people, usually males, dominating the conversation.” (Klawe, 2014)
  • When forming teams, instead of trying to equally distribute different types of members, which leads to many teams with only one female student, encourage the formation of teams in which women are not the minority. (Dasgupta, 2016)
  • Use a peer mentor system where upper level female students serve as peer mentors to incoming women.  Or perhaps invite former students to come speak to your class or meet with your students. “These peer mentors fill a niche that’s different from high-level successful role models because they are closer in age and life stage to their mentees. Peer mentors are a stepping stone on the way to professional success in STEM.” (Dasgupta, 2016)
  • Some other strategies shown to be effective (pdf) are listed on the 2nd page of that handout.

See the resources below for some more information and tips on supporting the success of female students, especially in STEM courses and majors.

More resources:

At Embry-Riddle, see:

If you are interested in discussing efforts to improve the success of women at Embry-Riddle further, please contact CTLE Associate Director Hajara Mahmood.

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