Yesterday afternoon, Dr. Bonita London, CU Graduate School of Arts and Sciences ’06 and Associate Professor at Stony Brook University, gave a presentation on barriers and bridges to STEM engagement among women, focusing in particular on undergraduate students. Betsy Ladyzhets, senior staffer (and woman in STEM), describes Dr. London’s talk.
When I arrived in 614 Schermerhorn yesterday, the room was already half-full. Unlike most events I’ve written about for Bwog, this presentation appeared to have an audience primarily consisting of undergraduates – I even recognized a few faces. All of us were the women in STEM typified in the event description, and all of us were hoping that Dr. London could present new insights that would help us look at our majors and possible careers in new ways.
Dr. London began her presentation by stating the general purpose of her psychology research lab at Stony Brook. “The basic, general theme of the work I do in my lab is understanding how social identity affects everything,” she described. “Everything” includes health, mental wellbeing, and academic relationships, and numerous other facets of a person’s life. This type of research is called social health psychology.
She then explained why her research on women going into STEM fields is so important. STEM fields are growing at an incredible rate (80% of the fastest growing careers are in STEM fields), yet these fields have a very high attrition rate. For example, on average, 59% of students interested in computer science will change direction before completing their major or program. And these attrition rates are disproportionately high for women. Dr. London cited that in middle and high school, girls are actually taking part in advanced math and science classes with an increasing interest compared to boys, but this interest drops off some time between entering college and entering the workforce. Her research aimed to look into why this attrition occurs.
Dr. London went on to talk about disparity in STEM fields from a social identity framework. She explained that “STEM departments in particular tend to value natural ability over effort,” thus setting “a standard that many students can’t meet, but is a hallmark of what STEM faculty think is needed to be successful.” This standard is particularly dangerous when combined with the common stereotype that women are not good at the logic problems and rational thinking characteristic of STEM fields.
“This creates an environment that you have to be a genius, and you don’t have what it takes,” Dr. London said.
She described how she and her team more closely examined the challenges women in STEM face using the lens of social identity theory. She defined the terms “STEM identity” (extent to which an individual feels connected to or invested in their STEM field) and “Perceived Identity Compatibility”, or PCI (belief in conflict or compatibility between gender identity and STEM identity). If STEM and gender identities are in conflict, women are most likely to disengage from one of them – and they will usually choose to let go of their STEM identity rather than their gender identity.
In addition, social support can heavily influence how women going into STEM fields deal with the challenges they face. Dr. London explained that networks of support (especially of women) can buffer stressful experiences, such as going to college. The transition to college is particularly stressful, because students’ concerns about abilities, “fitting in”, and potential for success often become exacerbated during this time.
Dr. London and her team did a multifaceted experiment on undergraduate students interested in STEM fields at Stony Brook to examine “how women live the experience of their identity in the college context.” They collected data on 247 first-years who identified as women interested in STEM fields, first by having the students complete structured daily diaries during their first twenty-one days of college, then by having them complete weekly diaries during their second semester. These diaries asked students to rate how they felt they had performed in their STEM classes, how supportive they felt their friends and family were of their majors, how they felt they belonged in their STEM majors, and how likely it was that they might change majors.
Before the diaries started, the researchers did initial surveys that allowed them to attach a PCI ranking to each student. They found that for women with higher PCI rankings remained motivated in their STEM classes even when not doing well, while women with lower PCI rankings became less motivated when they failed. The researchers also found that perceived support buffers women when they’re struggling. They were also able to use PCI rankings calculated from survey data at the beginning of the spring semester to predict students’ end-of-year STEM engagement; students with lower PCI were more worried about others’ perceptions, and had lower GPAs in STEM courses.
Dr. London’s conclusion of her team’s study was that “PCI and social support are important for STEM engagement, particularly when female STEM students are struggling academically during the early transition to college.” However, they also found that, even though a high PCI rating and strong social support act as buffers when women in STEM are feeling less confident about belonging in their majors, on average, many of the women they studied ultimately will contribute to the high attrition rates of women in STEM fields. On average, the researchers saw drops in PCI, perceived support for students’ majors, and sense of belonging in STEM – and increases in expectations of dropping out of those STEM majors.
All of this research seems disheartening. How can we, women hoping to go into STEM fields, combat the entrenched societal pressures that seem to be dead-set against our success? How can we hold onto our confidence and support systems when kids in middle school classrooms told to draw a scientist all draw balding white men?
Dr. London provided a few recommendations at the end of her presentation. The most important ways of helping women succeed in STEM, she said, are exposure to role models, mentors, and reducing gender bias; as a result of her research, Stony Brook is working on applying these ideas directly to courses. Perhaps, someday, Columbia will make similar efforts (and when it’s finally completed, Barnard’s new TLC is supposedly going to promote STEM majors). But for now, all we can do is stick together, mentor each other, and remind ourselves that we belong in our STEM classes, laboratories, and discussions just as much as men do.
Fun with Venn diagrams via Dr. London (photo via Betsy Ladyzhets)