How to Increase the Number of Women in STEM

Dr. Monica Burdick, professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at Ohio University discusses how to increase the number of women in STEM majors.

By: Dr. Monica Burdick, Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, Ohio University

One of the first things I do shortly after waking—even before coffee—is check my work email account. As a faculty member in a chemical engineering program, a lot of homework, career and other miscellaneous questions can arise for my students while I get those precious few hours of sleep.

During my morning routine just the other day, my operating system login page greeted me with the newsy message that only 6.7 percent of women graduate with STEM degrees. Good morning? It could have been better. In fact, it needs to be better to meet society’s emerging challenges in healthcare, energy, and infrastructure. 

But how?

There are no easy solutions, yet there is plenty of research to create pathways for change.  A recent National Bureau of Economic Research working paper from Georgetown University researchers reports that three factors work together to force women out of STEM college majors: receiving low grades, the distribution of men and women in the respective fields and existing stereotypes regarding gender. 

Disrupting any one of those factors can help keep STEM women in their chosen major, but these factors aren’t entirely under student control.  Instructors may choose to grade on a curve, while changing gender distributions and stereotypes in STEM are steeped in deeper societal biases.

If students can’t control these factors, then faculty, academic support personnel and administrative leadership must work together to help them. Here are some potential leads:

  • Introducing real-world problems into coursework and extracurricular activities. Project-based learning provides experience in the career field and benefits all trainees, regardless of gender.  However, this type of problem solving, whether in the formal classroom setting or in professional development organizations (all majors have an extracurricular organization for their fields), tends to help attract and retain women in particular by meaningfully connecting them to the societal relevance of their field. The sooner the exposure to STEM projects that are linked to societal improvements, the better.
  • Providing opportunities for mentorship and a sense of community. The benefits of a professional support network are obvious, from providing mentors to facilitating industry contacts throughout all career stages. Organizations such as Women in Technology and the Society of Women Engineers can also help women in STEM overcome academic and professional challenges unique to their gender. Moreover, these groups can also help women recognize institutional biases (see below) or the unacknowledged gender biases in themselves or others that might be preventing career advancement, forcing to them feel like they don’t belong, or inadvertently pushing them out of STEM. 
  • Academic leadership must be willing to confront institutional biases that persist against women in STEM. Anyone in an academic role that can influence a student’s decision to stay in or leave STEM should feel a professional obligation to understand their students’ concerns, whether it’s a single student meeting to discuss a homework grade, a roomful of seniors in a professional ethics class or a subset of students from an underrepresented group in STEM.  This obligation includes being willing to research a perhaps unfamiliar subject, then self-reflect on some potentially uncomfortable truths about ourselves and our colleagues. When it comes to issues such as recruiting and retaining women in STEM, we must ask ourselves what myths we’re potentiating, what stereotypes we may be reinforcing, and most importantly, how can we meaningfully improve our actions and our policies.

Again, there are no easy solutions. Some fields, such as biology and mathematics, have been making significant strides in narrowing the gender gap.  Others, including engineering, computer science and physics are woefully behind.  Work remains to keep women interested in STEM and continuously employed in those sectors. Together, can we raise that 6.7 percent of women earning STEM degrees to 10 percent? To equal men at 17 percent?  Even higher? Any improvement at all would make for a good morning—one for which I remain hopeful. 

About the Author

Dr. Monica Burdick is a professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at Ohio University and an expert in colon and cervical cancer, who is currently applying principles like fluid dynamics to look at how cancer cells move through the body and how metastasis can be countered. Dr. Burdick is also passionate about working with the next generation of female engineers. Burdick believes that increasing the number of women in STEM is vital in order to increase the diversity of viewpoints within the industry.