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Friday, November 14, 2014

Women in STEM: Progress, Asymptote, and Equality

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Here's an interesting article from Marvi Ann Matos's blog published by Ciencia Puerto Rico (CienciaPR), a nonprofit organization composed of scientists, professionals, students and citizens committed to promoting science, research and science education in Puerto Rico.

In a speech to the United Nations, actress Emma Watson candidly expressed her perspective in regard to feminism, women rights, and gender equality. The speech, which called for action from men, women and the spectrum of genders, presented a realistic and somewhat grim picture of the current status of women’s rights around the world. 

Today, in United States we face very limited progress towards the inclusion of women in fields such as Mathematics, Computer Science, and Engineering. Presented in this article are specific statistics of women with degrees in Science and Engineering that illustrate an asymptote in progress in math-intensive fields. I conclude with ideas to inspire, integrate, and retain more women in Engineering, so that STEM may serve as a passport towards equality. 

In 2010, women were earning 57.2% of the bachelor’s and 46.8% of the doctoral degrees in all fields. In Science and Engineering (S&E), women earned 50.3% of the bachelor’s and 40.9% of the doctoral degrees. Compare these statistics to 1970, when women were awarded 43.3% of the bachelor’s and 13.5% of the doctoral degrees in all fields, while in S&E women earned 28.0% of the bachelor’s and 9.1% of the doctoral degrees. 

This is undoubtedly great progress towards inclusion and diversity (1). Biological and Agricultural Sciences are examples of outstanding progress with, 58.6% of the bachelor’s and 51.7% the doctoral degrees awarded to women. Other fields such as Psychology and Veterinary Sciences have even higher percentages (1). However, in math-intensive fields such as Engineering, Computer Science or Mathematics, progress has been limited. In 2010, women were only awarded 18.5% of bachelor’s and 23.1% of doctoral degrees in Engineering (1). A bigger concern is the fact that progress in the field of engineering has somewhat stagnated since 2000 (2).

Asymptote… and some ideas
In a study published in the Harvard Educational Review by Espinosa (2), the author investigates which precollege characteristics and college experiences are predictors for the persistence of all women and women of color in STEM. It was found that women in college leave STEM “in part because of the inability of professors to make science accessible and aligned with their goals of contributing to society”. For women of color, the college experience and environment was shown to be contributing factors for their persistence in STEM, more so than their background or high school performance. Among the specific college experiences correlated with retention of women of color are: (a) college community engagement activities, (b) participation in STEM related clubs, (c) co-curricular activities that improve scientific performance, and (d) academic peer relationships (as supposed to strictly social).

In Engineering, a predictor for the retention of women is a clear intention to major in the field prior to college (2). This goal defines their High School curriculum, focusing more in math and, thus, preparing them for college. For anyone intending to study engineering, it is crucial to understand what Engineering is and what Engineers do while students are still in middle school or high school. To put this in perspective and in chronological order the student: (1) is exposed to the field of engineering via an inspiring teacher, science outreach, mentoring, science fairs, etc., (2) internalizes that engineering is a path to help, serve and impact society via innovation, (3) decides that engineering is a potential career to follow, (4) continues to enroll in all math requirements in middle school and high school to ensure a fair chance to be admitted in an engineering program, (5) applies to college engineering programs, (6) participates clubs, co-curricular activities and sustains healthy work/study peer relationships in preparation for industry or graduate school and (7) graduates as an engineer and is recruited. This is my roadmap for engineering success based on the predictors found by Espinoza.  At the beginning of this path, there is always a teacher, or a science fair project, or an outreach activity in which these women are exposed to engineering. This is a call for action, stop waiting passively for serendipitous experiences, spontaneous growth in the number of young women applying for STEM in college and for women to just show up at the job fair. Let’s be intentional. STEM outreach and the integration of engineering concepts and courses in middle school and high school curriculums are powerful tools to increase the percentage of women in STEM. More so, connecting Engineering to impact to society is a key message to engage women.


Source: CienciaPR Blogs

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