Science brief: CU researchers explore ways to support women in STEM

About 20 percent of women earn Bachelor’s degrees in STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – based fields. Several psychologists at the University of Colorado are compiling research on what factors prevent women from earning STEM degrees and how educators might be able to help.
In a paper published last August, CU researchers emphasized the importance a feeling of belonging can have for women embarking in STEM careers. Women who feel that people like them are underrepresented in male-based fields, and women who notice stereotypes that don’t fit their own personalities in these fields are less likely to feel a sense of belonging and more likely to change their course of study, the researchers write. 

Stereotypes and a lack of diversity in STEM fields have real implications for women. According to the research, women’s grades are likely to suffer when they feel they are not in an environment where they belong. In addition, fields in which men are more heavily represented tend to promote stereotypes that students skilled in those areas are naturally gifted, rather than promoting the idea that hard work and growth are behind success. 

Fortunately, there are steps educators can take to try to make STEM fields more accessible and accommodating for women.

The researchers say that access to female peers and professors can be helpful, but they also recommend that professors promote and reward skills related to work and development over skills related to innate ability. For example, the researchers write, educators might reward students for reworking and improving assignments, rather than basing grades mainly on large-scale exams.

Additionally, the researchers recommend that professors sort students into diverse groups, giving each student a task to complete within the group. This structure allows women to create closer ties with their classmates, while also letting them see that male peers make mistakes and are not simply naturally gifted in STEM fields. 

Finally, the researchers encourage educators to present examples of scientists and mathematicians who don’t fit with stereotypes of a certain field. On a personal level, educators can be open about their own struggles in their work. 

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