Increasing enrollment and retention of women in STEM majors is a national effort. In 1950, women held only 12.2% of STEM careers. This time era was marked by the domestic role of women. The priority of marriage, interruptions of the career because of the maternal role, and family dynamics during the early years of development have all impacted the number of women in STEM fields (Rossi 1965). Today, women hold only 24% of STEM careers (US Department of Commerce 2011). Although the domestic role of women in our current culture has changed, women are still lagging behind in STEM fields in enrollment numbers and retention. From pedagogy to institutional programs, efforts can be made to attract and retain women into STEM majors.
The feeling of discouragement and not belonging is a common theme of women who drop out of STEM majors in reaction to faculty pedagogy and overall culture of the major (Seymour 1995). Sense of belonging can develop at an early age due to previous educational experiences. Multiple studies have found differences in teacher-student interaction from elementary through high school. One study found that male students receive more acceptance-intellectual, criticism-intellectual, and criticism-conduct than female students, which reinforces independent thinking in male students (Duffy 2005). Therefore the attitudes, early experiences, and lack of preparation for a rigorous STEM curriculum and culture is fixed with many female students before they enter higher education (Blickenstaff 2005, Seymour 1995, Duffy et al. 2005). When entering higher education, the faculty-student dynamics does not create a reassuring environment for students with low confidence, and for too many females translates into discouragement and can lead to leaving the STEM major (Seymour 1995).
As higher educators, there are many opportunities we can provide to support and retain these women in STEM. Both perceived compatibility between gender and major and perceived social support have been found to be major variables in predicting success (Rosenthal et al. 2011). Creating an environment with successful, strong female role models along with a support network are steps that can be taken institution-wide to retain women in STEM.
Blickenstaff, Jacob. Women and Science careers: Leaky Pipeline or Gender Filter? Gender and Education, Vol. 17(4), 2005.
Duffy, Jim, Kelly Warren, and Margaret Walsh. Classroom Interactions: Gender of Teacher, Gender of Student, and Classroom Subject. Sex Roles, Vol. 45, 2002.
Rosenthal, Lisa, Bonita London, Sheri Robin Levy, and Marci Lobel. The Roles of Perceived Identity Compatibility and Social Support for Women in a Single-Sex STEM Program at a Co-educational University. Sex Roles, Vol. 65, 2011.
Rossi, Alice S., Women in Science: Why so Few? Science, Vol 148, 1965.
Seymour, Elaine. Why undergraduate leave the sciences. American Journal of Physics, Vol. 63(3), 1995.
U.S. Department of Commerce. Women in STEM: A Gender Gap to Innovation. Executive Summary, ESA Issue Brief #04-11, 2011.