STEM Dean Roundtable

INSIGHT Into Diversity recently spoke with three female deans of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) schools. These women provided insight on the critical need to increase the number of women in STEM professions and improve math and science education for our nation’s youth.


Nada Marie Anid, PhD, is the first female dean of the New York Institute of Technology’s (NYIT) School of Engineering and Computing Sciences. In this role, she oversees nearly 80 faculty members and 3,500 students at five NYIT campuses. She currently holds leadership positions in several organizations, including the American Institute of Chemical Engineers and the American Society for Engineering Education.

Maria V. Kalevitch, PhD, is the dean of Robert Morris University’s (RMU) School of Engineering, Mathematics, and Science, as well as a professor. She began as the only female faculty member, went on to become the founding chair of the science department, and is now the school’s first female dean. She also serves on the university’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee and is a member of the Women in Engineering Leadership Institute and the New York Academy of Sciences.

Debra Larson, PhD, PE, is the dean of the College of Engineering at California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly), San Luis Obispo, where she is also a professor. She began her career as a civil and structural engineer and went on to serve in various positions at Northern Arizona University prior to joining Cal Poly. She provides national service to the American Society for Engineering Education and the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology.

According to a recent report from the National Student Clearinghouse, the number of women pursuing degrees in STEM fields dropped across the board from 2004 to 2014. The most significant decline was in computer science, which fell from 23 to 18 percent in that time. Where should efforts be focused in order to entice more women to pursue STEM degrees?

Kalevitch: I think [this] has implications both nationally and internationally. I strongly believe it starts with education, and education should go as far as elementary school. And we shouldn’t forget family; education of parents is also essential. They are the ones who are [usually] paying for the student’s education, and they are also … fully involved in decision making. We need to educate about many things, including career options.

The preparation of our teachers is also essential. If we look at the many educational problems we have in this country, [teachers] may not have enough content. Diversity is essential, but if you do not have content, that’s a limitation. This is something that I think we need to look into — and we are, but nevertheless, we have a very long way to go.

Larson: [At] Cal Poly, we’re different from that. Our computer science department is actually seeing growth in the number of women. We’re starting to see an uptick in first-time freshmen who are accepting our offers of admission. In the fall of 2010, only 9 percent of the offers of admission to come to Cal Poly [to study] computer science were women. For the fall of 2015, which is the last set of reliable data I have, we had 23 percent of women accepting our offer to study computer science. And the same phenomenon is going on with software engineering; 20 percent of the women are accepting.dean1

So what are we doing that is different? We have a leader in [the computer science] department, the department chair, who has taken this issue on, to increase the opportunities for women to study computer science. He’s very active in building structured communities. He’s created a group called Women in Software and Hardware, better known as WISH. And that has been helpful in supporting and developing a community of young women in computer science.

What we’ve been finding is that being part of a community and being able to have opportunities to work collaboratively and to have mentors helps.

Anid: We have to think about it as a pipeline problem. If we want to make a difference, we have to start at the primary school, middle school, and high school levels. So if we want more women graduates four years from now, five years from now, and so forth, we have to work backwards 13 years; that’s kindergarten.

dean4We have to think like businesses do. What’s our target? How long will it take us to get from here to our target? I think we have to change our processes and think in those terms — start with a target and move backwards. It will take universities like ourselves, [and] I urge corporations and foundations to work with us. … We all have to work collectively to make a difference, start very early on, and come up with programs that are going to make a difference.

No significant progress has been made in the last 15 years in the number of women pursuing technology and engineering, and computer science has seen a decline. The American Society for Engineering Education is calling this year the year of diversity. We’re coming up with an implementation plan with the hope of making a difference, using the approach I just mentioned.

“Imposter syndrome” is a phrase I often hear associated with women in STEM fields and refers to the phenomenon in which a person experiences feelings of inadequacy and inferiority in the workplace — even when those feelings have proven false. Do you believe this often affects women in STEM professions, and if so, why do you think women in these occupations struggle with feelings of self-doubt in regard to their role and abilities in the workplace?

Kalevitch: These things are really common to all human nature. We have this striving for perfection, but we also have very strong self-doubt. I think having mentorship and guidance along the way is really something that helps to sort of inoculate your self-confidence. … I think a network of mentors and people you can go to who can guide you is essential to building self-confidence.

But I think all of us, both men and women — but women probably more — have experienced this type of feeling and this struggle.

Larson: I think the competitiveness that naturally comes with being a man is what contributes to imposter syndrome. But we found something out at Cal Poly that I think is really important, and I think it helps [inform] how we can help people be more successful in moving through self-doubt. We did a study about two years ago … and surveyed incoming female engineering students — and when I say engineering, I also mean computer science.deans2

One of the surprising statistics that came out of this was that 68 percent of the young women who had come to Cal Poly to study in the college of engineering had participated in sports. So we’ve drawn some conclusions around the importance of sports and extracurricular activities in helping our diverse student body with being more confident and more comfortable in this environment of engineering. But I also think things like music, dance, art, leadership, and other extracurricular activities can be as important as sports; it’s a “secret sauce” helping students retain and persist within an engineering field. It’s particularly relevant when you’re talking about students who are coming from diverse backgrounds, but it works for male students as well.

Anid: This decline in self-confidence — and many studies have shown this — starts at age 11, when puberty hits. That’s when [girls] lose their confidence, and that’s when you see a drop in performance in math. Also, in middle school, [there are not as many] math and science teachers who are female, and they’re not trained to talk to these middle school girls. That makes this syndrome even more pronounced, and it stays with them.

It’s not just in STEM, but it’s more pronounced in STEM. I see it now, and oftentimes when I go to classrooms, there [is] only one girl. Research also shows that girls are more careful and less assertive; they don’t take risks. So when the teacher asks a question, they’re not going to be the first ones to raise their hand. They need to be certain of what they’re saying before they speak. So by the time they think and say something, three boys have already given the answer. That promotes self-doubt and a lack of self-confidence, and it perpetuates it.

It takes a while to assert oneself, especially in college. [For example], I went to college in Stockholm, which is a very forward-thinking country in terms of women’s rights; we would be solving a problem — there were very few girls in the classroom — and the boys would say, “Oh, are you sure your answer is correct?” I had to repeat what I had done; they would never trust my work. And my work was right from the beginning. It toughens you. That kind of taught me how to react in these situations, and by now, I can convey this to others and make them feel stronger and help them react — and act.

According to ACT test result data, only 44 percent of 2013 U.S. high school graduates were ready for college-level math, while only 36 percent were prepared for college-level science. Also, according to data from the Pew Research Center, as of 2012, the U.S. ranked 35th out of 64 countries in math and 27th in science. How can we better educate our nation’s youth in math and science and prepare them for careers in those fields?

Kalevitch: I strongly believe that we have to look at the root of the problem, which is the type of knowledge and education that we’re giving our teachers, because they’re the ones who go back to the school level to work with the students. So how much content do they have? How much access do they have to hands-on experiences, to cutting-edge technology? How do they teach our students innovation?

There are a lot of things that we need to [consider], because engagement is also a very important piece that often is missing. We’re burdening our teachers with some bureaucratic responsibilities that take away from the teaching-learning process. I don’t have the answers to all of those questions, but I know this is something of importance to many.

Larson: My gut reaction is that we need to have the parents involved. I don’t feel like we have a societal understanding about careers, especially the STEM professions — what they take and what’s so important and great about these careers. But then how does that translate? We have this huge gap in understanding, and I think where that gap often lies is with parents, because they are unfamiliar with what it takes and the kind of study that’s needed, the academic preparation that’s needed for their child to be successful.

We also need to, as a society, honor the profession of teaching more than we do. I think that’s about the kinds of decisions we’re making in terms of public funding of education.

Anid: To me, this starts with the teachers. Take examples of nations that have transformed their rankings — Finland, for example — and look at how much they pay their teachers compared with the U.S., how they train them, and how much they value them. It’s all in how teachers are trained. To me, that will make a difference. We have math teachers who never studied math in college. That’s the sad reality. You take science teachers; they don’t have a science background, but they teach science. So unless we reform the education of our teachers, and we value them by raising their salaries, our ranking will remain the same.

Of all bachelor’s degree students who entered STEM fields between 2003 and 2009, 48 percent switched to non-STEM majors or dropped out during that time, according to the National Center for Education Statistics’ 2013 report STEM Attrition. What can be done to provide these students with the resources and support they need to follow through with their degree and succeed in their field?

Kalevitch: Along with enrollment, [retention’s] another very important issue. You bring students in, but how do you retain them — and not just retain them, but help them be successful in STEM disciplines?

I believe that if students have an organized plan of study from the very beginning, an adviser and mentor, a strong student support center, and involvement with the community, [they will succeed]. There are many venues to help students engage in those disciplines. We know that, traditionally, they are considered to be difficult disciplines, so sometimes people shy away, but if we have that plan, that advising, and that mentorship from the very beginning, I think we’ll be successful.

For example, for two years now, we’ve had a women’s leadership and mentorship program [at RMU]; this is 20 to 30 young women who come here as freshmen, many of whom are in STEM disciplines. They get to be in this cohort and support each other. They have academic advisers, they have peer mentors, they have industry mentors. The retention in that cohort is 95 percent, which is very good. … So this type of support definitely demonstrates that students do well when they feel that someone cares and takes an interest in them.

Larson: Many studies speak to incoming academic preparation as one of the challenges. Being able to have pathways where students can explore different options within STEM is a really helpful way of retaining students in a STEM profession, but not necessarily the one that they choose as a 17-year-old coming out of high school. So flexibility in being able to explore and some flexibility with the actual curriculum and its structure can be very helpful.

Anid: I shared this statistic at a conference in Stockholm, and people were shocked to hear that not only very few [students] enter STEM fields, but then we only retain half of them. So retention and attrition are very important. Based on research, what women and minorities need is mentoring, tutoring, encouragement, and role models. All the support systems are now showing positive results in retaining minorities and women, because we also find that whatever we teach them, they want to have put into context. To motivate them, our teachers need to always add an application to the theory — this is how you use this, this is how this concept changes society. You always have to attach a societal factor to what is taught. That works for these groups.●

Alexandra Vollman is the editor of INSIGHT Into Diversity