Cultivating a Culture of Respect to Attract Women to STEM

September 01, 2011

Each month this year, AAUW is teaming up with Nature Publishing Group, one of the world’s leading science publishers, to put together an online forum on women in science. The AAUW posts highlight findings from our 2010 research report, Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, now in its third printing.

Individuals form career aspirations in part by drawing on perceptions of their own competence at career-relevant tasks. As described here earlier this week, Stanford University sociologist Shelley Correll’s research shows that the cultural association of mathematical competence with boys and men negatively influences girls’ self-assessments compared with boys’ and raises the standard by which they judge themselves. Girls’ lower self-assessment of their math ability, even in the face of good grades and test scores, contributes to fewer girls expressing preference for and aspiring to science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) careers.

This means that many capable young women may not be choosing to pursue careers in science or engineering because of belief structures in the general culture that suggest that science and engineering are men’s work. This has implications for the future of science and engineering because those who decide to pursue STEM careers may not actually be those who are best qualified for these careers.

Correll’s research shows that girls’ self-assessments are influenced by the stereotypes that are operating in their immediate environment. When institutions (including K–12 schools, universities, and workplaces) and individuals cultivate a culture of respect and send the message that girls and boys are equally capable of achieving in math and science, girls are more likely to assess their abilities more accurately and consider a future as a scientist or engineer.

As Correll explained in an interview with AAUW, “Enhancing how girls feel about themselves is very, very important, but if we don’t do the flip side and change how other people feel about girls, we’re setting girls up to feel good about themselves only to encounter structures that are really pretty negative for them.”

Any thoughts?

By:   |   September 01, 2011

2 Comments

  1. Withheld says:

    I am trying to finish a degree in computer engineering. I just left one University where I and my female peers were making A’s in our discipline, only to be discriminated, sexually harassed and sexually assaulted against in our studies or at campus events. Not wanting other female students to go through this, I filed a complaint with the US Dept. of Ed.

    What I have observed is, that when female students can simply sit down, open their minds and do the math or engineering, they can do it and do it well. When male faculty (and students they mentor) don’t want women in the discipline, the men find out what games they can get by with — whether it is sexual harassment, discrimination, exclusion, or worse sexual assault. These behaviors in the “learning environment” (and where male students are learning them) are what concern me.

    Additionally, the huge amount of time women are required to take to fight these types of cases is counter-productive to their studies. So, the processes themselves to deal with these situations dilute how successful women can be.

    At the new campus I am trying to transfer into, the chair has refused to meet with me for the past 4 months. So even though the campus advertises they are Equal Opportunity and promote women, their words are not matching their actions.

    For these reasons, I agree with the article that the opinions of others need to change. Somewhere along the line, possibly soon before men go into college, beliefs on how women should be treated, and the value of women are being formed. If universities say they encourage women in science and engineering, this belief should not only be an everyday “process”, it should be specifically mentored, possibly starting at orientation for freshman and transfer students.

    The situations where professors can get by with demeaning, excluding and discriminating against females in learning environments and class lectures needs to stop. There are far too many male students who look up to these professors and will gladly emulate them.

    I have also been in the workplace in male-dominated industries before going back to college and I have never seen the prevalance of discrimination that I have seen in academia in the past three years.

    My 2 cents. I don’t want any student to ever give up on their dreams.

  2. christiannecorbett says:

    Thanks for commenting and telling us what your experience has been like in what seems to be a very, very difficult environment. In chapters 8 and 9 of AAUW’s 2010 report, Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, findings from two research projects on bias are described showing that indeed, people continue to be biased against women in male fields like computer science. Discrimination can be hard to prove, but my experience working in engineering parallels your own. The data show that women are less likely to go into fields like engineering and computer science from the beginning and more likely to leave them than their male counterparts. I believe that discrimination like you describe is one significant reason for this.

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