Science, technology, engineering and mathematics are consistently held up as the future of the American economy — and by extension, the future of American higher education. At first glance, it appears that women are well represented in these STEM fields, as they earn half of all science and engineering degrees.
Look a little closer, however, and imbalances persist. Just 20 percent of bachelor’s degrees in engineering and 18 percent of bachelor’s degrees in computer science are earned by women. That’s a problem, because computer science (and to a lesser degree, engineering) is where the jobs are. The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ employment forecasts predict that 73 percent of STEM job growth will be in computer occupations, compared to 3 percent in physical sciences and 3 percent in life sciences, in the decade ending in 2024.
Attracting women to STEM is only half the battle; retaining them in degree programs has proven to be a significant challenge. Some recent research is shedding new light on the reasons female college students drop out of STEM majors, and what universities can do to retain them.
Why do female students leave STEM programs?
In colleges and universities, about 48 percent of undergraduate students in STEM majors drop out or transfer to other programs. While men are more likely to exit by dropping out of college altogether, women are more likely to change majors; 32 percent of women who left STEM moved to a different degree program.
It’s not that women are easily discouraged. “Women persist,” said Adriana D. Kugler, a professor at Georgetown’s McCourt School of Public Policy. “They have to get triple signals, triple cues, that they don’t belong, that they don’t belong to actually be turned away more than men.” Kugler’s a co-author of a new study from Georgetown that examined the reasons female students leave STEM. Those reasons are complicated, the study found, and include the environment, the perception of the major and students’ grades.
Another study, still ongoing, is examining how students’ expectations lead to gender disparities in the STEM dropout rate. “Often, women expect negative experiences in the field and that might be enough to deter them,” said Missouri University College of Education professor Lisa Flores, one of the study leaders.
Biases favoring male students may also be a factor. A 2012 study demonstrated persistent bias against female students when considering their applications for a hypothetical lab manager position. “The scientists evaluating these applications (which were identical in every way except the gender of the ‘submitter’) rated the male student more competent, more likely to be hired, deserving of a better salary, and worth spending more time mentoring,” Inside Higher Ed reported.
Strategies for retaining female STEM students
Is there any way to make a difference in the female student retention rates? One answer is mentorship. Specifically, female mentorship, as one 2017 study discovered. When 150 incoming women were randomly assigned a male peer mentor, a female mentor or no mentor, the results were dramatic. At the end of their freshman year, 18 percent of the students with male mentors had dropped out of school or switched majors; the same went for 11 percent of the students without mentors. Every student with a female mentor remained in the program.
“Female (but not male) mentors protected women’s belonging in engineering, self-efficacy, motivation, retention in engineering majors, and postcollege engineering aspirations,” the study’s authors stated.
Another crucial element in retention is a sense of belonging. “Poor performance is not what drives them out. Feeling like they fit in, or not, is the critical ingredient that determines retention,” researcher Nilanjana Dasgupta, a psychology researcher at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, told the National Science Foundation. Female students who have connections to female professors, experts or peers feel more confident about their abilities and are more likely to persist in STEM majors, Dasgupta’s research found.
For female computer science majors, in particular, their intro-level class experience can make a big difference in retention. Women on average, are less likely to have taken a computer science class in high school, so an introductory programming class may be their first exposure to the field. If the instructor wrongly assumes they have some experience with coding, or if female students don’t get the chance to improve through trial and error, they may be discouraged, said Linda Sax, professor of higher education at UCLA’s Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, who’s leading a five-year study on women and students of color in computer science.
Mary Murphy, an assistant professor in Indiana’s Bloomington College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, is embarking on an ambitious five-year study to delve deep into STEM students’ everyday experiences. Murphy’s project uses new technology to record bits of conversation between 2,000 students and their professors to study how they interact and detect subtle biases and assumptions. Murphy hopes to use her findings to create free instructional materials that educators and business leaders can use to create spaces that welcome women as well as people of color.