Changing the Culture for Women and Underrepresented Groups in STEM+M

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Although sponsoring and facilitating K-12 activities to increase the participation of young girls and students from underrepresented groups in STEM+M (science, technology, engineering, math, and medicine) is laudable, academia and industry should do more. “It is easy to look back a few steps in the pipeline and indicate that is where the problem lies but not try to change the culture to recruit and retain students and employees when they reach the later stages of the pipeline,” says Gail Gasparich, PhD, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Salem State University in Massachusetts. That will not lead to increased diversity; if you don’t change the environment, the result will always be the same. 

Gail Gasparich
Gail Gasparich

According to Double Jeopardy? Gender Bias Against Women of Color in Science, a 2015 report published by research and advocacy organization WorkLife Law at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law, one in three female science professors surveyed reported experiencing sexual harassment. “There’s been a lot of talk about how to keep women in the STEM pipeline,” one of the study’s authors told The Atlantic, “but it fails to make a crucial connection: One reason the pipeline leaks is that women are harassed out of science. And sexual harassment is just the beginning.”

Sexual Harassment of Women: Climate, Culture, and Consequences in Academic Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, a comprehensive report published in June 2018 by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, revealed that nearly half of all women in science have experienced some form of sexual harassment. 

According to the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, over one-third of African American, Latino, and Native American students enter college with an interest in studying STEM, yet only 16 percent actually go on to obtain a bachelor’s degree in those fields. When it comes to the engineering and computing workforce, which accounts for more than 80 percent of STEM jobs, women remain dramatically underrepresented, as documented in the American Association of University Women’s (AAUW) recent research report Solving the Equation: The Variables for Women’s Success in Engineering and Computing. This 2015 study found that women make up just 26 percent of the computing workforce and 12 percent of the engineering workforce; African American, Hispanic, and Native American women are especially underrepresented in these industries. 

Careers in engineering and computing hold promising prospects: The work can be challenging and rewarding, and computer scientists and engineers are especially well-compensated. 

In general, employment in STEM occupations has grown 79 percent since 1990, from 9.7 million to 17.3 million, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data from 1990 to 2016. Annual trends demonstrate that STEM laborers earn 24 percent more than non-STEM workers. Catherine Hill, PhD, former vice president for research at AAUW and author of Solving the Equation, said, “These are opportunities that should be available to women and underrepresented groups. When women are not represented in these fields, we’re leaving half of our workforce out of innovation opportunities. We all lose.”

Higher education’s limited progress may be rooted in how we are viewing and approaching the problem. Thought leaders, policymakers, and practitioners have engaged in separate conversations about causality as they have tried to increase diversity in STEM. 

In an article on the American Council on Education’s website, Kimberly Griffin, PhD, associate professor in the College of Education at the University of Maryland, said there is a need to focus the conversation specifically on the culture and climate within STEM disciplines. She noted how “exclusionary norms and values translate to an unwelcoming environment.” 

The STEM+M disciplinary culture has its own unique set of norms and values that predominate in various departments and programs. Griffin contends that individuals’ likelihood of success in science increases when they understand and adopt these norms and values. 

So, how can we reduce the chilly climate women and underrepresented groups experience in the STEM+M fields in academia? 

We must launch intentional efforts to change the campus climate. Specifically, we must work to change the attitudes, beliefs, behaviors, and perceptions of community members.— including faculty, students, administrators, and staff — as they navigate issues of difference. 

Considerable evidence-based data have shown that progress has been made in identifying experiences and outcomes in a university STEM+M classroom climate that is more supportive of minoritized students. The term “minoritized” acknowledges how social constructs like race, gender, ethnicity, religion, and sexual identity influence power dynamics and exposure to oppression. 

Griffin, as well as Lenore Blum, PhD, distinguished career professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University.— in her report “Transforming the Culture of Computing at Carnegie Mellon” — offer specific recommendations for faculty on how to achieve inclusive STEM+M classrooms. Some of their thoughts include the following:

● Creating a classroom environment that makes it easy to ask questions

● Using group projects that foster cooperative learning

● Showing how STEM knowledge is used in industry

● Communicating the use of STEM to life and social sciences

● Using inclusive language and examples

● Addressing instructors’ sexist beliefs, stereotypes, and microaggressions

● Creating opportunities for students to not only develop content knowledge but also have hands-on experiences and gain a sense of belonging and identity as scientists

● Allowing students from underrepresented backgrounds.— and women of color specifically.— to have opportunities to discuss and deeply engage in STEM course content with peers, participate in undergraduate research, and join science clubs and organizations

In making the 21st century case for inclusive excellence in STEM+M, the Association of American Colleges and Universities in June 2014 provided funding for 14 institutions to participate in Teaching to Increase Diversity and Equity in STEM (TIDES), a program designed to increase the learning outcomes and retention of students historically underrepresented in computer and information sciences​. Over the last three years, TIDES and its awardees have provided STEM faculty with opportunities to become proficient in incorporating culturally sensitive pedagogies into their courses. The initiative has also worked to engage faculty in course implementation that is grounded in evidence-based, culturally sensitive pedagogies. 

According to Gasparich, this initiative is a great first step to addressing the often unconscious messages about what “scientists look like, value, and do that have permeated the culture and curriculum in … engineering, computer science, and medical education.” 

Similar programs are in place to increase the number of female physicians in male-dominated fields such as orthopaedic surgery. The most recent Association of American Medical Colleges data indicate that orthopaedic surgery ranks lowest among all specialties when it comes to the percentage of practicing female physicians, with less than 7 percent. However, 48 percent of medical students are female, so to capture the brightest and most talented surgeons, we need to increase interest among women. 

The Perry Initiative is committed to inspiring young women to be leaders in the exciting fields of orthopaedic surgery and engineering. Its mission is advanced primarily by running hands-on outreach programs across the country for female high school, college, and medical school students. 

Katherine Coyner
Katherine Coyner

As part of the initiative, Katherine Coyner, MD, an assistant professor and orthopaedic surgeon at the University of Connecticut Health Center, has participated in programming to increase opportunities for female medical students to be exposed to orthopaedic surgery as well as professional development programming. Coyner says she believes “it is important to create a climate that is inclusive for our profession as well as for the patients we treat.”

“The … one-day Perry program can [have] a lifelong effect as it offers female medical students potentially their only opportunity to network with female role models in the field of orthopaedics,” she says. “It is also likely the only time in their medical school career that they gain focused, individualized, hands-on exposure to orthopaedic surgical techniques.”

In addition to changes in pedagogy, there need to be visible signs of women and underrepresented groups at all levels of the university. Faculty and administrators should strive to be representative of the students they serve. Hiring practices must be open and subject to oversight that ensures the broadest pool of qualified applicants. 

Having women and those from underrepresented groups chair search committees is one small step that can be taken. Increasing leadership opportunities for these groups is also critical for their advancement into administrative positions, as well as creating affinity groups to provide an internal support network for employees with similar interests and needs. 

Another strategy to create an inclusive culture is to cultivate advocates and allies from majority groups who will be supportive of a diverse workforce.      

Although it is important to encourage as many K-12 girls and students of color to pursue STEM, it is equally important to see that they find a supportive culture when they enter higher education and the workforce beyond.

Lisa McBride, PhD, is assistant dean of diversity and inclusion, chief diversity and inclusion officer, and a professor of medical education at Texas Christian University and the University of North Texas Health Science Center School of Medicine. She is also a member of the INSIGHT Into Diversity Editorial Board. This article ran in our September 2018 issue.