University website addresses gender gap in STEM fields

ASU's STEM site will include videos of women with successful STEM careers.
ASU's new web site will include videos of women with successful careers in the STEM fields.

Arizona State University officials aren’t just adding to the reams of research showing a gender gap in the science, technology, education, and math (STEM) fields. They’re confronting the persistent issue with a web site that encourages women to identify and rectify the “benevolent sexism” prevalent in these male-dominated fields.

The university will launch Nov. 4 after receiving a $3.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) in 2006. The site, more than just another web resource with studies on how few women are entering STEM fields and finishing degree programs, will offer advice and encouragement from women who have succeeded in the four STEM professions in an effort to close this gender gap.

The web site, aimed at women pursuing their doctorate degrees in STEM fields, will have hundreds of “HerStory” video clips of women who have navigated the difficult STEM road and established careers.

Videos will be available in a wide variety of STEM fields, meaning women can find others from their particular profession, not just someone with a general STEM career, said Bianca Bernstein, an ASU counseling psychology professor and principal investigator of the CareerWISE research program grants.

“Our approach is a little different, because we’re actually trying to do something about it,” she said of the gender gap in the STEM fields.

Giving female Ph.D. candidates real-life examples of women who have been immersed in the same male-dominated fields, Bernstein said, could be key in motivating them to stay in school.

“One of the things we’re trying to address is that women and minorities don’t have role models to see what successful careers can look like in these fields,” she said. “It’s hard to imagine how you might succeed if you don’t see others like you succeed.”

Bernstein said women in STEM fields are often pegged as “lab mothers,” expected to clean up the laboratory after a day of work. And many women are not invited to present research, for example, at an overseas conference, because men assume women want to stay home with their children.

“They’re expected to stick to the more routine work,” she said, describing the discrimination in STEM fields as “benevolent sexism” because men are often trying to accommodate women with children. “They don’t realize they might be discouraging women or not giving them full opportunities. … [Men] might think they’re being sensitive, but it results in women missing out on a very important aspect of career advancement.”

Often, being one of the only women in a STEM workplace—sometimes the lone woman—can be a challenge.

“There are still a lot of instances where that happens,” Bernstein said.

Gender isn’t among the biggest factors for predicting who will earn a STEM-related degree. It’s the strongest predictor, according to research released by the Council of Graduate Schools, which showed that women in STEM fields are 7 to 10 percent less likely to finish their doctoral programs.

A report titled, “Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Education, and Mathematics,” published by the American Association of University Women (AAUW) last spring, identified several reasons for the gender gap in STEM fields.

The report said that “negative stereotypes about girls’ abilities in math can indeed measurably lower girls’ test performance” and “lower girls’ aspirations for science and engineering careers over time.”

Encouraging girls and women to enter and remain in STEM fields, however, has proven effective, according to the AAUW research.

“When test administrators tell students that girls and boys are equally capable in math, … the difference in performance essentially disappears, illustrating that changes in the learning environment can improve girls’ achievement in math,” the report says.

Connecting females with the humanities and arts in higher education is “common,” according to the report, even among respondents who “actively reject” the stereotypes of men excelling in science and math and women gravitating toward the arts.

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