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Why some colleges are better than others at getting women into STEM careers

Jan 04, 2016   |   by Jillian Berman   |   MarketWatch

Some American colleges are finding answers to a question that has bedeviled employers and policy makers alike: how to get more women into the high-paying, in-demand fields that drive today’s economy.

Those schools, a new analysis finds, are using a range of strategies — from hiring more women faculty in fields where they’re traditionally underrepresented to setting up specific programs geared toward advancing female students’ ambitions in science, technology, engineering and math, or “STEM” — to prepare women for careers historically dominated by male graduates.

The schools’ successes with female students who want to be actuaries, engineers or computer scientists can be seen in two ways: small gaps between the number of women and men earning STEM degrees, and higher earnings for female graduates. Their results offer a window into the role higher education could play in increasing the number of women in STEM fields.

“If it continues to be the white men who are doing the best coming out of colleges then to some extent higher education is failing in its fundamental mission to create opportunity for anyone who is willing to work hard,” said Barbara Gault, the vice president and executive director of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. ... MarketWatch interviewed deans, professors, students and career counselors at several of those schools to learn how they’re achieving those outcomes.

...Dartmouth’s Thayer School of Engineering focuses on tackling big societal issues as well as the nitty-gritty of solving math and physics problems. The school’s introduction to engineering course has only a basic math requirement; instead, it focuses on a different topic, such as energy efficiency or the quality of life for seniors, each semester.

That may help explain why women made up nearly 40% of Thayer’s graduating class last year, said Joseph Helble, dean of the engineering school. “You’re starting from a position where [the subject is] a problem students want to solve,” he said. “You start with the motivation and then you develop the tools and skills.”

Other Dartmouth programs are directed specifically at female students. Through the Women in Science Project, freshman women get the chance to work for professors in labs, an opportunity not often afforded to first-year students at most other colleges.

“It gives them a leg up,” said Mary Lou Guerinot, a biology professor who has been working with the program since it started in 1990. At that time, the number of women students and faculty in the sciences at Dartmouth was relatively low, but nearly half of the school’s science majors were women in 2012 and there are female faculty members in each of the sciences.

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