Geeky Girl Reality is a longitudinal independent study created in response to the surprising lack of women represented in STEM careers. It aims to give voices to women interested in STEM and allows us to construct meaning and data surrounding their experiences as women
The Continuation of this blog series reflects our findings from our Spring 2016 survey of 163 women between the ages of 15-46 who represent 16 countries from around the world. (please see our previous blog for our findings on the impact of early childhood interests and how they affect the pursuit of STEM careers later on in life).
Here we take a look at how higher education affects a woman’s interest and confidence in STEM.
Confidence and 10 Year Plan
Our data indicates that career paths and confidence are significantly influenced during college. As stated by one participant, “Gender stereotypes are still associated with classes and discourage students from exploring their interests.”
This trend can be seen from the bar graph below, which compares our survey participants’ year of study to their 10-year plans and confidence levels in getting a job.
On the horizontal axis, each year of study is listed along with a bar representing the corresponding 10-year plan responses. The pink bars are the percentages of women planning to pursue a STEM career; the green bars are the percentages of women planning to pursue a non-STEM career, or indicating no career plan. The overlapping blue line represents our participants’ confidence levels from year to year.
Respondents in their first year of college had high levels of confidence averaging at 4.1 out of 5, and 63% of them had a 10-year plan involving a STEM career. However, this percentage dropped to only 37% for those in their second year of college. This year also correlated to a drop in confidence to levels of 3.6.
Confidence levels steadily rose for women in their later years of college, averaging as high as 4.2 in year 5. Meanwhile, women planning to pursue STEM rose in the third year to its highest point at 67%, and then fluctuated for years 4 and 5 between 50% and 63%.
Although the upward trend for both variables in the third year seems positive, it could indicate that the proportion of women who lose confidence in their second year choose to leave STEM fields, resulting in an inflation of these values the following year. What causes the drop in the second year isn’t clear. However, this negative trend may be caused by social stigma, lack of support, encouragement and female mentors for women at College. One participant stated “males in engineering are treated with more respect than females. A girl has to speak twice as loud and work twice as hard just to be recognised on a ‘level playing field’.” These double standards in learning experiences could alienate women making them question their abilities.
Could the hiring of more women faculty members help combat this fall in confidence? Results from our previous series suggest this may be the case, with unrelated female mentors increasing the likelihood of women pursuing STEM careers. Interestingly a recent article found women now have a better chance than men at being hired as professors, which may indicate cultures are changing slowly amongst HE institutions.
Class standings also indicated a relationship with our participants’ areas of study. To demonstrate this, we used the line graph below to compare the subjects studied by our participants to their year of study.
On the horizontal axis, each year of study is listed chronologically from 1 to 5. Each subject is represented by a differently colored line that shows the percentages of students studying the subject. The variations in the lines indicate how these percentages change from year to year.
46% of our freshman (year 1) participants studied computer science (CS), making it the most studied subject for that year. As the class standing increased, however, the number of participants studying CS steadily decreased to the point where only 18% of women studied it in year 5.
The life sciences (bio, physical, human, and health) showed the opposite trend. Human and health sciences were studied by only 6% of freshman students, but were one of the top subjects for year 5 students at 24%. Similarly, biosciences and physical sciences were studied by 23% of freshman students, but increased significantly for year 5 students, where they were the most studied subjects at 35%.
It appears that women in STEM start out college with a higherinterest in technology fields, but as the years go by, they are more likely to leave college pursuing a life science. Additionally, CS courses could be the cause for the loss of confidence discussed earlier, since the number of CS students begin to decrease in the same year that our participants had a drop in confidence.
These results could also indicate that CS is grounded within a ‘deeper’ male orientated culture compared to the other STEM subjects where women find it more difficult to ‘identify’ and ‘find a place’. One CS participant stated “Women face harsher penalties for their mistakes, from both themselves and their peers.” suggesting women feel at battle internally and externally with the social stigma surrounding their role within the subject. These pressures could provide one explanation as to why more women leave CS.
Encouraging more women to continue studying STEM
There are a number of steps we can take to improve the retention rate of women in science and tech:
- Establish college programs geared towards freshmen and sophomores in STEM that provide a safe place for them to share their struggles and get advice.
- Appoint more women as faculty members in STEM to empower female students and limit their feelings of uncertainty.
- Increase college preparation opportunities in high schools, so students can be more confident and prepared in handling difficult college courses.
- Encourage the women you know to become mentors for other women who are just starting out in their college education. If you’re a woman in science or tech, consider becoming a mentor yourself.
We can change the future if we work together.
This has been the second in a series of exploration into the experiences of women in science, technology, engineering, or maths. Keep an eye out for more posts as we look at other influences affecting women’s careers.
Andrea Lewis, Raiya Al-Ansari, Molly Goodman
Cruz, E. (2016, July 27). The Gap Between Women and Men in STEM and What You Can Do About It [Web log post].
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