Attracting More Women To Study STEM In A World Full Of Geek Dude Stereotypes

Forbes

July 27, 2016

By Michelle Cheng

Half of all science and engineering degrees are earned by women. Does this signal gender equality in STEM? Many experts and advocates say it doesn’t. While the critical mass of women in biosciences and social sciences remain high – between 49% and 58% –  the proportion of female students who earn bachelor’s degrees in engineering (20%) is bleak. It’s an even lower percentage of women in computer science, according to a National Science Foundation report from 2015.

Women often turn away from these heavily-male dominated fields because they don’t feel as though they fit or look like they belong, according to a 2015 study from the American Association of University Women (AAUW), pointing specifically to stereotypes, biases, curriculum and environment as factors holding back women’s full participation.

It doesn’t help when the portrayal of computer programmer in mainstream culture tends to be unrepresentative of women. Being the face of CS is rare for a woman. If you look up “programmer” on Google Images, you’ll have to scroll a long time before you see the first image with a woman in it. The highly-acclaimed HBO show Silicon Valley follows a group of nerdy, male programmers in a startup company. Back in real life, only one-quarter of speakers at top tech events are women.

“The images in media sort of celebrate the young geeky male,” says Maria Klawe, the well-respected president of Harvey Mudd College and a computer scientist by training. “There is typically a small number almost always of male students who have been programming at a very early age. Everyone, the parents, students then think of computer as a boy thing, [but] girls use computers and iPads and smartphones as much as boys do.”

The AAUW study also reveals that when it came to career goals, women are more likely than men to prioritize helping and working with other people; thus, they often turn away from engineering and computing jobs, which are often perceived as being solitary occupations. Incorporating communal aspects into the curriculum and outside the classroom can increase the appeal of those fields to communally-oriented people, many of whom are women.

In the class of 2016, Dartmouth became the first national research university to graduate more women (54%) than men in its engineering department. What could account for its success? Joseph J. Helble, the dean of Thayer School of Engineering at Dartmouth, says that he believes their overall approach to teaching engineering is what’s attracting women to their program, which is creating a more collaborative, applicable environment and a supportive network.

Dartmouth places a huge emphasis on hands-on, project-based learning, from the very first engineering class. “We give all students, including non-engineering majors, the chance to take project-based design courses alongside of engineering majors, which encourages some students who did not initially think of themselves as engineers to explore engineering,” says Helble. “We also encourage them to see engineering, broadly, as a collaborative enterprise focused on solving real-world challenges.” In addition, the university – where the male to female ratio is 51:49 – places a high priority in integrating liberal art skills with engineering, to help them understand and communicate the problems they will face as engineers. ...

... But what happens when women complete the introductory courses and move on to more challenging, higher-level courses? The BU computer science department makes it a point to hire female undergraduate teaching assistants to help students in labs. Dartmouth focuses on providing diverse role models for all students at all levels, enabling female students to interact with successful mentors every step of the way. “We do think that the success of our more senior female students is getting noticed by our new students,” says Helble. This year, engineering has become the third most popular major at Dartmouth.

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