“You want to be a math major?” I could not believe that a math tutor at the College of William and Mary — someone whose job was to help me succeed — was putting me down for wanting to be in the mathematics program. I had spent an hour asking him questions, very few of which he was able to answer, and yet, he was challenging my choice of major. At the time, I could not believe that he had said this to me, but as the experience sunk in, I questioned my ability to succeed as a math major. Unfortunately, this experience is not unique among young women studying science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Many of my female friends, and even some of my female professors, have experienced derogatory comments, particularly at larger universities. The attacks are even worse on minority women in programs dominated by white men. In order to keep women in STEM, we must develop programs that support women and eliminate the stereotype that STEM is for men.
In order to retain undergraduate female STEM majors, colleges need to provide role models by hiring female STEM professors. Having a professor or advisor with a similar perspective makes it easier to discuss future plans and current experiences. There is a severe lack of female role models at universities and colleges, especially in STEM programs. In 2016, the University of Arizona found that as of 2010, women and men enroll in doctorate programs in almost equal numbers. However, “women comprise only 21 percent of full professors in science fields and five percent of full professors in engineering despite earning about half the doctorates in science and engineering in the nation.” The lack of female professors perpetuates the stereotype that STEM is for men, and women should stick to the humanities and teaching. Even when women are hired by universities, they tend to make less money than male professors and are less likely to be offered tenure. It is impossible to make STEM accessible to undergraduate women when their female professors are neither paid nor treated equally when compared to their male counterparts. A 2013 report from the Public Broadcasting Service found “that when young women hear about a non-stereotypical computer scientist, their interest in the field increases.” Therefore, an increase in female professors would be a welcome change to the predominately male STEM faculties that are currently the norm.
The College claims to be a progressive university where gender does not influence the treatment of their students and faculty. This appears to be accurate, since 54 percent of professors at the College are female, according to data from College Factual; however, this ratio is much lower in the STEM fields. In 2011, the College began a program called WISE to support female STEM professors. According to the College’s Associate Director of University News Erin Zagursky, the program “[funds] a variety of career-development activities, including workshops on topics such as writing, leadership and challenges that women in STEM disciplines face.” To the College’s credit, this program increased the number of female professors in the geology, chemistry and biology departments. However, in the mathematics, physics and computer science departments, there are far fewer female professors, and of those women, even fewer are tenured or on tenure tracks, showing that there is still a lack of female role models at the College. The College should look to Montana State University, which successfully implemented a program to eliminate the gender gap in their faculty. Through this program, they have hired an equal number of male and female STEM professors for tenure track positions since 2012. According to Audrey June, a senior reporter at The Chronicle, the program is “an intervention that included training faculty to recognize implicit bias, sharing tips on how to recruit diverse candidates, and making sure finalists could have a confidential conversation about Montana State’s work-life policies with a ‘family advocate’ unaffiliated with the search.” If the College can implement a program that starts making gender diversity a priority starting at the hiring process, it could help female students because they would be able to see themselves in STEM fields.
Colleges and universities need to make changes in order to attract and retain women in STEM programs. They need to actively recruit female students and professors into their student bodies and faculties. As more women are interested in STEM careers, it is vital that STEM programs become more inclusive. Currently, these programs cater to men and perpetuate the stereotype that STEM is a masculine discipline. In order to increase the number of women in STEM, women need to know that there is a clear place for them in colleges and careers. They should not be expected to endure harassment and have their abilities and qualifications constantly questioned. Women need to want to stay in STEM because of the professors, students and programs, not in spite of them.
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