By Guest Contributor Aparna Ramen
When I began volunteering at the U of M’s Women’s Center last year, I decided to research women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) fields for several reasons. First, as a neuroscience major, I am studying and will be pursuing a science/medical career in a STEM field. Secondly, nearly everyone in my immediate and extended family, both men and women, have studied and work in STEM fields, particularly in engineering, math, and computer science, which, as we will see, are the most underrepresented areas of all for women in STEM fields. Many of my friends also study and work in these fields. Thirdly, women are the most underrepresented in both education and careers in STEM fields.
Before I started out, I already knew of course that there was a significant discrepancy in the ratio of men and women in science and engineering fields through hearsay and my own observations. After all, it is difficult not to notice when 70-80 % or more of your classmates in upper level physics, math, and neuroscience courses and laboratories are male, or when only 20-30% (or less) of your professors and TAs in those classes are female.
Not all the sciences have this significant gender difference though. In biological, behavioral, and the social sciences, which are commonly called the soft sciences, the representation of men and women in both students and faculty are about even. However in the hard sciences, which comprise the fields of natural, physical, and computing sciences, and include my own field of neuroscience, women are severely underrepresented, and this does have a significant negative impact also on the environment and community crucial for attracting and retaining women in these fields.
Before I go over the statistics, I’d like to give a bit of an overview of my family background. I was raised, quite literally, in a family of computer scientists and engineers. With very few exceptions, all the women (and men) in my extended and immediate family studied and worked in STEM fields. My father is a structural engineer and my mother is an electrical engineer. Both my parents grew up and studied engineering in India before moving here to pursue graduate studies.
My mother earned an M.S. in electrical engineering here at the U of M, and then went on to work at companies in Minnesota such as Honeywell and Medtronics, in chip design and implementation. Both of my dad’s sisters earned master’s degrees in mathematics and my mom’s three sisters studied chemistry and computer science, and one of them works in software development in the US. My female cousins also have studied and work in engineering and science fields. One of my aunts (who studied physics and business) started up and runs a successful company in Bangalore, India, that develops software to do technical writing. She was featured in a newspaper article as one of five highly successful female entrepreneurs in the state. My dad’s female cousin is a math professor at an Ivy League college.
So, growing up amongst all of these highly educated and successful women (and men) engineers, entrepreneurs, and scientists, I took higher education in these fields for granted and was expected to succeed and prosper in them as well as my other relatives. However, while their resumes and successes sound glamorous, the paths that they took in these male-dominated fields weren’t always smooth. Many of my female relatives who studied in these fields did so, by necessity, in environments where women were largely outnumbered by men and as a result, were sometimes less than supportive of women. As I will be describing in more detail later, the environment that my mom originally studied in as an electrical engineer wasn’t always the most supportive or comfortable for her.
Here are some national statistics on women in education in STEM fields. Although I expected significant underrepresentation of women, some of these shocked even me.
Underrepresentation in Education: Women in STEM Fields
- Less than half as many female students as male students enter STEM fields: 14.5 % of female students, compared to 32.9 % of male students entered STEM fields between 1995 and 20011.
- Only 0.7 % of female students compared to 1.7 % of male students entered math; 7.3% vs 9.5 % entered the natural sciences (including physical, biological and agricultural sciences); 2.7 % vs. 15.1 % entered engineering and applied sciences; and 4.3 % vs. 9.3 % entered computer science and IT between 1995 and 20011.
- More female students than males students switched from a STEM major to a non-STEM major by 4-6 years after enrolling.1
- Slightly more female students than male students in STEM fields left post-secondary education without earning a degree or certificate by 4-6 years after enrolling.1
- The odds of attrition are greater for females who belong to a hard-applied science major (versus a hard-pure major).2
- The odds of attrition in STEM fields were 25.3% greater for women than that for men. Also, the odds of attrition for black women were 62.3 % greater than for men.2
- There are fewer women in math and science, receiving only 18% of undergraduate engineering degrees and 12% of doctoral engineering degrees.3
Stick around for my next post (The Stats, Part B), which will cover more stats and analyses on women in STEM both here at the U of M and in other colleges and professions nationwide.
1.Students Who Study Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) in Postsecondary Education. Stats in Brief. NCES 2009-161.
2. Lott, J. L., Gardener, S., and Powers, D. A. “Doctoral Student Attrition in the STEM Fields: An Exploratory Event History Analysis.” Journal of College Student Retention, 2009, 11(2) 247–266.
3. “Why do we still need women’s centers?” University of Minnesota, Women’s Center.
Aparna Ramen is a volunteer research assistant at the Women’s Center and an undergraduate neuroscience major at the University of Minnesota. Her goals include a career in scientific research and medicine. With a passion for science, philosophy, social justice, and feminism, and experience dealing with and overcoming disability, she also hopes to encourage other young women to overcome their setbacks and pursue their dreams.