In the opinion article “So Much for Gender Neutrality,” Andrew Jenson questioned the need to host a Women in Science Day at the University of Idaho Coeur d’Alene campus on Oct. 1-2. This event is geared toward high school sophomore women students interested in pursuing degrees in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) fields.
Considering that women are still significantly underrepresented in these fields nationwide, a more prominent issue is why these events do not happen more often. Let’s take a look at the number of women students majoring in these fields at UI.
During the 2012-2013 academic year, just 253 of the 1,770 students enrolled in Engineering programs were women. A discouraging disparity by anyone’s account. In Natural Science, 260 women were enrolled in this program, compared to 512 men.
These numbers may be surprising, as, according to the American Council on Education, women comprise nearly 57 percent of college students nationwide — 47 percent at UI. However, of these women, only 17.3 percent of first-year women students elect to major in a STEM field and nearly 50 percent will discontinue their post-secondary educations or change to non-STEM majors, according to the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA.
Many women are not continuing their post-secondary educations or are changing to non-STEM majors in accordance with perceptions of career suitability based upon gender stereotypes, issues of classroom pedagogy and a lack of social support that seems to be inherent in many of these fields. Studies have shown that many women feel a lack of social support and an inability to connect and identify themselves within STEM fields. Students also feel disconnected due to large lecture format classes, disconnected faculty members and environments that do not encourage collaborative work.
Additional campus programs, such as the Society of Women Engineers, Women in Engineering, Women Outdoors with Science, the Randall Seminar Series and programs provided by the UI Women’s Center, are critical to retention and degree completion for women in these fields.
Programs targeting women within their chosen career fields provide opportunities for networking that may not have existed before. These opportunities, paired with programs provided by campus offices such as the Women’s Center, can give women the social, emotional, educational support and advocacy these students ultimately require in order to succeed. And they do need to succeed. STEM fields have long been recognized as areas needed for national innovation and competitiveness, and under-participation in these fields will ultimately hinder women’s economic independence.
— The staff of the UI Women’s Center