Monday, October 26, 2015

Advancing Gender Equity in STEM Fields

Although great strides in gender equity have been made in recent years, STEM fields are among the areas where women still lag behind men. STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) has long been a boy's-club of sorts. The nature of these STEM fields in no way deters female participation by definition; women should be no less effective in these areas than men. However, STEM is intimidating for women because relatively few women are present in STEM fields. To close the gap, it would take a strong push to successfully initiate more women into these fields. A recent publication of the American Association of Colleges and Universities' Peer Review offers insight into this issue and how women can become more prominent in STEM. 

The primary hindrance to equalizing the number of women and men in STEM seems to be a type of self-fulfilling prophecy, such that, because women are not prominent in STEM, women who might pursue STEM believe they do not belong there. According to the National Science Foundation (NSF), more than 30% of first-year women express intent to study in STEM fields, but women are still vastly underrepresented in STEM degree completion, particularly in engineering and physics. For instance, a first-year woman deciding what major to take may be disinclined to choose an engineering path, although she excels in math and physics, based on the fact that she does not want to be the only woman in most of her classes. Subsequently, there is one less woman in STEM. This trend continues  as women are less frequently promoted or tenured in STEM fields compared to their male counterparts. The lack of female faculty, and especially minority female faculty, is problematic for recruiting female STEM students as well, and the cycle continues. 

To attack this problem, it is critical to empower institutions with practical strategies to produce transformative change. So far, the greatest effort has been made through the NSF's ADVANCE program, which began in 2001 with the goal of increasing diversity in STEM to better tap into the nation's innovation, talent, and various perspectives. The program has provided many institutions with the financial resources and guidance to implement strategies and initiatives that would have otherwise been non-existent. Such initiatives focus on recruiting underrepresented groups to STEM majors, retaining and supporting women who are already pursuing STEM educations, understanding additional challenges that affect female STEM students and faculty, and emphasizing the importance of female faculty members and giving them the support necessary to continue being models of female success in STEM. From 2001 to 2010, there has been a steady increase in female representation in STEM, with female faculty increasing from 16% to 22% overall and from 8% to 16% in engineering. Although these reports are encouraging, there is still a large disparity yet to be rectified for women as a whole and for minority women in particular, for whom there has been little real progress in STEM representation thus far. 

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