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Stephanie H. Soto, Florida International University

Stephanie Soto.jpgDuring the early stages of their undergraduate education, every student must choose an area of concentration, or major.  Female undergraduate students outnumber their male counterparts, yet there is a great underrepresentation of women in majors considered to be traditionally male; specifically, almost three-fourths of women choose female-dominated majors.  This has led to a disproportionately small number of women in STEM areas of concentration: science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

Among first year students, approximately 29 percent of all male freshmen plan to major in a STEM field, while only 15 percent of all female freshman plan to do the same (Hill, Corbett, & St. Rose, 2010).  Even when women have decided to pursue a STEM major, over half switch to another major before completing their undergraduate degree (Morris & Daniel, 2007).  These disparities persist despite women’s interest in STEM fields.  This has led to a low number of female students earning STEM degrees; women are earning only 20 percent of bachelor’s degrees in physics, engineering, and computer science (Hill, Corbett, & St. Rose, 2010).   

It is crucial for colleges and universities to impact those statistics by counteracting the factors that enforce gender roles.  By examining the factors that influence a woman's choice of major, academic advisors can develop strategies and create programs that expand a female student's options of major.

In order to examine this underrepresentation, it is imperative to analyze the factors that influence a female student to not choose a male-dominated major.  According to Cheryan and Plaut (2010), “Academic fields, like all social groups, possess particular prototypes, or idealized group members who best embody the group’s perceived traits and attributes.”  Gender role stereotypes include the perception that there are appropriate career choices for women versus men.  Societal beliefs about gender roles and stereotypes can influence a student’s choice of major.  Women often avoid majors in the STEM fields due to their socialization in traditional gender roles.  Female students may feel their identity will not be valued in these domains, or even be discriminated against.  These assumptions are called social identity threats (Murphy, Steele, & Gross, 2007), and can discourage women from pursuing particular fields.  An unwelcome environment can inhibit a female student's own idea of self-efficacy, as can the people surrounding the student, including their family and those currently working in the industry.  It is possible for an academic advisor to address the social identity threats that correlate with each factor: environment, familial influence, mentorship, and self-efficacy.

Environment

Women often will not feel welcome in traditionally male-dominated fields of study.  These feelings are derived from experiences of being singled out or ignored because of their gender, which lead to a loss of confidence.  Some examples of how a college campus may create an unwelcome environment are: discouraging women from participating in class, allowing disparaging comments about women and their intellectual abilities, ridiculing women’s perceptions and feelings, using examples that reflect stereotypical roles such as referring to a doctor as he, and appearing more attentive to male students (Morris & Daniel, 2007).

What Academic Advisors can do:

  • Foster a supportive learning environment.  The interactions female students have with other students, faculty, and staff members can contribute to the environment.  Situational cues, such as differential treatment or lack of encouragement, may contribute to an experience of social identity threat.  In order to create a supportive environment, academic advisors must take steps to address those situational cues.
     
  • Learn about our own biases.  Gender roles are a set of social norms associated to a certain sex.  Gender role stereotypes include the perception that there are appropriate career choices for women versus men.  To recognize the bias prevalent in an own office, take notice of the images around the office space or on the department’s website, the language used in an advising meeting, and how career options are presented.  With a few changes an advisor can create a more inclusive environment for female students.

Role Models and Mentorship

The perceptions of similarity between the students and current individuals in the field can shape a person’s interest in that field.  It can be difficult for women to find mentorship in STEM, because when looking for mentorship people try to find others who they perceive to be similar to them.  As there is a lack of women currently in STEM disciplines, female students may feel discouraged to pursue those subjects in college.

When Christine, a Junior at Florida International University (FIU) studying Environmental Engineering, was asked if she has a female role-model in her field, she responded:

No.  I think about this often.  I have problems being assertive and I really want to find a strong knowledgeable female in my career field to look up to.  I really wish I had a mentor like this.  I have so many questions from what is appropriate to wear in the office (that looks professional, yet stylish, yet does not draw attention), from how to negotiate salaries, to how to be most respected in this field without having to become more masculine (in character).

What Academic Advisors can do:

  • Identify female role models.  Student may assume they will have to change to meet workplaces’ standards, so it is important to invite female community members who have been successful in STEM fields to on-campus events.  Creating opportunities for a student to meet a role model or mentor is the greatest evidence that the student will be successful in the field.
     
  • Create an on-campus community for female STEM students.  Find an on-campus club or organization for students to get involved with.  FIU has just started a living-learning community for first-year female residents.  This community offers multiple opportunities to connect with faculty, mentors and other students.  To get involved on campus look for volunteer opportunities with student STEM organizations, living-learning communities, the on-campus women’s center, or other campus events.  Academic Advisors can also build a bridge between students and female STEM faculty members.  Only 18 percent of full professors in STEM departments at research institutions are women, so students may not have a female professor as an instructor.  Advisors can connect female faculty and staff members, who can serve as mentors to students throughout their degree. 

Family

Familial relationships play an important role in a student’s decision about valid career choices.  The support, or lack of support, received from family members can guide the student towards a certain major.  Family is also one of the greatest sources of information for the student.  Research shows there are strong links between a college student’s major and their parents’ educational attainment and socio-economic status (Porter & Umbach, 2006).  Many college students are likely to choose majors that would help them follow in their parents’ footsteps.

What academic advisors can do:

  • Actively recruit female students.  Prior to the start of college, students depend on family opinions and advice. Without family knowledge of the STEM fields the student can pursue, the female student may never consider the option to pursue a major in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics. Perform outreach programs for high school students, undeclared college students, and incoming transfer students.  These events should be designed as a way for those attending to learn about, and spark interest in, STEM majors and possible careers that correlate.  
  • Emphasize the broader applications of STEM degrees.  Teach students about the wide-ranging application and social relevance of STEM fields.  STEM sub-disciplines with a clear social purpose, that are directly beneficial to society, like Biology, have succeeded in attracting a higher amount of female students.

Student Self-Efficacy

Self-efficacy is a person’s belief in their ability to succeed in a certain area.  A student who expects to be successful is motivated to persist in that field of study.  Women are more likely to assess their abilities more negatively than men.  Female students expect to perform worse in STEM fields in comparison to their male peers.

What academic advisors can do:

  • Teach female students to accurately assess their abilities.  The more positively that students assess their abilities in a subject, the more likely they are to enroll in classes within that subject.  STEM majors are rigorous, and it is common for average grades to be lower than in high school.  It is important to explain this to students upfront.  Academic Advisors should motivate students within each advising appointment, discuss class averages, talk about the difference of expectations between high school and college, and challenge low academic self-efficacy statements.
  • Make performance standards in STEM clear.  Women often hold themselves to a higher standard in traditionally male fields like STEM.  This gives them an unrealistic expectation that they must be exceptional to succeed.  Academic Advisors should be prepared to help the student create realistic expectations for themselves.  Male students may find it easier to persist after earning low test scores, but women often must be supported.  Academic Advisors can teach students how to be resilient and direct them to resources on campus that can help them be successful within those intensive courses.

Every institution should not only be making an effort to discuss issues about major selection and gender, but creating an action plan that encourages women to pursue their studies in STEM fields and provides support for those students once they choose a STEM major. Academic advisors can play an integral role in creating a welcome environment, identifying and connecting students with female role models and mentors, providing detailed information for prospective students that may not understand the broader applications of STEM degrees, and challenge the student’s low academic self-efficacy by motivating them throughout their bachelor’s degree. Supporting female students in their pursuit towards a degree in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics will foster an open and diverse scientific community in the future.

Stephanie H. Soto
Academic Advisor
College of Education
Florida International University
sdsoto@fiu.edu

References

Cheryan, S., & Plaut, V. C. (2010). Explaining underrepresentation: A theory of precluded interest. Sex Roles63, 475-488.

Dawson-Threat, J., & Huba, M. E. (1996). Choice of major and clarity of purpose among college seniors as a function of gender, type of major, and sex-role identification. Journal of College Student Development37, 297-308.

Dick, T. P., & Rallis, S. F. (1991). Factors and influences on high school students' career choices. Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, 22(4), 281-292.

Hill, C., Corbett, C., & St. Rose, A. (2010). Why so few? Women in science, technology, engineering, mathematics. (1st ed., pp. 2-28). Washington, DC: AAUW.

Morris, L. K., & Daniel, L. G. (2007). Perceptions of a chilly climate: Differences in traditional and non-traditional majors for women. Research in Higher Education49, 256-273.

Murphy, M. C., Steele, C. M., & Gross, J. J. (2007). Signaling threat: How situational cues affect women in math, science, and engineering settings. Psychological Science18 (10), 879-885.

Porter, S. R., & Umbach, P. D. (2006). College major choice: An analysis of person-environment fit. Research in Higher Education, 47(4), 429-449.

St. Rose, A. (2010). STEM major choice and the gender pay gap. On Campus with Women, 39(1).

Cite this article using APA style as: Soto, S.H. (2015, September). Working with women to STEMulate interest. Academic Advising Today, 38(3). Retrieved from [insert url here] 

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