Social stigma shows in STEM fields

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Researchers say a social stigma exists for female undergraduate and graduate students in sciences, technology, engineering and mathematics fields, according to a recent study.

The American Institutes for Research analyzed the degrees earned by students in overrepresented fields on campuses across the nation, documenting the ratios and numbers of individuals in undergraduate, graduate and doctoral programs for 135 academic fields. After examining the students, the institute found a prevalent gender gap and imbalance in STEM fields.

“Women are given different levels of encouragement; they might not be given that same push or shove because of implicit biases,” said Courtney Tanenbaum, co-author of the study and senior researcher at the institute. “Mostly, qualitative studies show that women in STEM can be isolated or marginalized.”

According to the institute, approximately 75 percent of males and 26 percent of females are overrepresented in bachelor and doctoral degrees in the 55 STEM fields analyzed. Even though the gender balance is slightly higher than non-STEM fields, the disparity remains, leading to individual prejudice and increased competitiveness for female students.

In analyzing the statistics of female students in higher education, such as bachelor and doctorate programs, Tanenbaum noted some factors that could disinterest females: inability to fit into a certain group, having a work-life balance and planning for a family.

“As a female faculty member, I try to be sensitive to these issues,”said Alice Agogino, a UC Berkeley professor of mechanical engineering. “I’ve had students come to me and say that the male students on the team are not listening to them.”

According to CalAnswers, an analytical tool that makes campus data accessible to students and faculty, 45.3 percent of students are involved in a STEM college on campus, with consistently high male-to-female ratios in colleges such as chemistry and engineering.

Some reasons for an imbalance that discourage female students include pre-existing stereotypes, discrimination by professors and colleagues, being a minority and constant competition from fellow male peers.

“The question I would like to ask is why there are not women in engineering,” said ASUC Senator Lavanya Jawaharlal, a mechanical engineering major. “Yes, it is getting better, but we need to be reaching out to students at a much younger age, breaking those stereotypes before they touch our generation.”

Groups around campus such as Womyn in Science and Engineering and Society for Women in Science aim to boost female confidence in such fields. Programs such as these have attempted to help females in understanding and dealing with the ongoing gender gap in a community through WiSE’s weekly seminars, peer-mentoring programs and optional live-in housing and SWIS’s discussions and networking opportunities.

Contact Robert Tooke at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @robertono_t.