Women and STEM Careers: Nobody’s Business but Their Own

While doing research for an upcoming article on the positive impact that honors programs can have on the performance of women majoring in STEM subjects, we made some discoveries that were surprising (at least to us) about why young women who are fully capable of successful careers in engineering, computer science, etc., have chosen other demanding careers instead.

Experts point to a troublesome shortage in the STEM fields that, in addition to engineering and computer science, also include biological and physical sciences and mathematics.  The problem is expected to worsen.  Those who are most concerned about the shortage focus on its impact on the economy and on the nation’s competitive position in the world.

Now that about 57 percent of college students are women (more like 65 percent in honors), many observers argue that the nation needs increased numbers of them meet the need for STEM grads.  Yet at the same time,  women are not enrolling or persisting in most STEM majors in numbers thought to be sufficiently high, and scholars, advocates, and pundits have sounded multiple alarms, most of them having to do with the very real gender bias in the sciences, classroom climate, lack of role models, and, occasionally, the alleged deficiencies in math that have for decades been associated with women.

Those in the business and political world who are most concerned about competition and economics are often the very people who champion the role of individual freedom and choice, especially when money and careers are involved.  While we believe that gender bias, stereotypes, and role expectations, along with a paucity of mentors, are in fact some of the reasons that many young women do not major in STEM subjects, we also credit young women for exercising thoughtful, market-related choices about the best way to combine their interests and values to best effect, not only for themselves but for the larger society.  

But first let’s consider the alleged shortcomings of women in mastering the skills necessary for STEM work, beginning with the math issue.  Women now make up 44 percent of math majors and they earn 43.3 percent of math degrees.  It is true that 44 percent shows that they are under-represented in the field based on their total percentage of college enrollment, but the sizable percentage they do have in the math discipline and their persistence in obtaining math degrees argue that the perceived lack of math skills is at least questionable and that many women do in fact have the math skills to become engineers or computer professionals–if they choose to do so.

(Note: the numbers are from the National Center for Education Statistics .)

In the biological sciences, women earn 58.5 percent of the degrees; in the physical sciences, 40.7 percent.  It is true that in engineering they earn only 18.3 percent of the degrees and in computer science only 18.1 percent.  But wait, here is where the (very) rational choice comes in.

One reason that many women study the sciences and math is that, even though they may not pursue careers in those specific fields, they do make up a majority–or even super-majority–of health care professionals who need math and science preparation to meet their goals.  They frequently have the quantitative skills to become engineers and computer scientists, but their values and a keen job market assessment lead them elsewhere.

According to the NCES, the health professions include not only physicians and nurses (and their many specialty fields) but also audiology, speech therapy, physical therapy, and related sub-fields.

The nursing shortage hit the U.S. in 1998, before the STEM shortage.  In 2000, there were 72,986 nursing graduates; in 2010, that number had grown to 161,540.   Some 85.1 percent of health professions graduates are women, including just over 90 percent of registered nurses and 48.3 percent of physicians.

Even though STEM grads in a few fields make more money than most health professions graduates straight out of college, after ten years people working in health care often earn more, sometimes much more, especially when graduate and professional degrees are considered.  And the health-related careers are likely less vulnerable to sudden technological changes or market disruptions.

One may say that women have been acting according to their role expectations or their values by becoming nurses.  Recent research also shows that women, with higher verbal ability to go along with quantitative skills, simply have a broader range of choices  as a result.  But however significant these factors may be, it is a fact that women in nursing and allied health professions are also (1) meeting an urgent national priority and (2) making good salaries for themselves.   Sounds a lot like the argument for pursing STEM studies.

Even granting STEM a priority position, we must still ask, what would happen if, say, half the women who are going into health professions reversed course now and decided to become engineers?  Would the nation be better off, at a time when almost all health professions are understaffed?  And would far more pressure be placed on men to take up nursing and other health-related careers instead of business?

If we speak of stereotypes, many people would say that men are, or at least have been, more competitive in their natures than women because of the almost complete male dominance of sports in the last century, and long before.  Another stereotype often follows: this competitive nature is better suited to the business world, and that world is, after all, the one that really counts.

This makes us wonder if the current pressure on women to study STEM subjects, particularly the ones most related to the business world, is largely a product of what the still predominantly masculine realms of business and politics want to see.  True, many of the demands for more women in STEM come from women, especially in academe, and if women really want the typically more austere and less engaged corporate jobs  in engineering and computer science, or want to be professors in those fields, then they should certainly be able pursue those goals free from bias or stereotypical expectations.

But it may well be that most young women are already making choices that have less to do with being “winners” than with being true to themselves.

A New Endowment to Support Young Women at UT Austin

Editor’s Note: This post comes from the University of Texas at Austin.

With women making up more than half the nation’s population—51 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau—the need for scientists, leaders in business and government, engineers, and doctors of both sexes is greater than ever. Fortunately for young women studying at UT Austin, the university increasingly provides both a social climate and an intellectual environment to encourage their ambitions.

INSPIRE Leadership is a three-year revolving program serving sophomores to seniors that helps women develop the skills they need to achieve the highest levels within their academic fields. Under the direction of the Center for Women’s and Gender Studies, which is part of the College of Liberal Arts, INSPIRE has served as UT’s signature leadership program for women undergraduates since 2009. About 90 percent of participants are young women of color, most are in underrepresented majors, and many are first-generation college students.

Mary Braunagel-Brown is committed to the establishment of an endowment supporting students selected for the program. Retired in Austin with her husband, Bruce Brown, following a successful career in business and higher education, Braunagel-Brown is an active community volunteer. She would like to see her INSPIRE fund grow quickly and support as many students as possible. She has therefore pledged to match new gifts to the fund dollar-for-dollar up to a total of $25,000.

“I am delighted to support INSPIRE,” Braunagel-Brown says. “I am impressed with the program’s efficient structure, which allows even a modest contribution such as mine to have a demonstrable impact.”

INSPIRE participants gain the confidence and knowledge to express their voice in the classroom, on campus, and in leadership roles in the community, making a difference by engaging in public service and working with other young women in supportive and interdisciplinary environments. They develop skills in areas such as critical thinking, public presentation, group motivation, and negotiation.

“The INSPIRE Leadership Program is unique and transformative,” says program facilitator Juan Portillo. “While we provide professional development workshops, take the students to conferences, and help them work on group and personal projects, the biggest impact that I feel this program provides is the space and time to take a step back and reflect on what it means to be a female student, more than likely a first-generation college student, and more often than not in a male-dominated field.”

Participant Bibha Suvedi, who is studying neurobiology and expects to graduate in 2014, says the program has helped her focus her ambitions. “Freshman year, before I was in INSPIRE, felt like a never-ending journey toward something that I didn’t quite have the idea of,” she says. “With so many students and their respective student organizations, it was surprisingly difficult to fit in. Joining INSPIRE and being able to interact regularly with an amazing group of diverse young women became the highlight of my week.”

In the academic environment, where what can seem most valued is the number of internships one has or the importance of competing and leaving others behind, INSPIRE teaches that becoming a leader requires many skills—originality, inspiration, imagination, resourcefulness, creativity, vision, and the power to influence. Moreover, students learn how to develop these skills directly from the experiences of successful female mentors drawn from both the academy and the community.

“I support this program,” says Braunagel-Brown, “because the world will simply be a better place when UT women—particularly first-generation college students, those from underrepresented groups, and those pursuing degrees in science, technology, engineering, and math-related fields—have the skills and confidence to reach their potential.”

AAUW Sponsors STEM Camps for Girls in Early Teens in Four States

Editor’s Note: This article is from the American Association of University Women.  It is the first post in a new category for us called Women in Honors.

Four Camps Launch Nationwide This Summer

By Katie Broendel, broendelk@aauw.org

WASHINGTON – The American Association of University Women (AAUW) will offer four Tech Trek camps across the country this month to encourage girls to explore their interests in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. The camps will engage approximately 160 girls from Ohio, Oklahoma, Florida, and Washington state.

Tech Trek has grown from one camp in California in 1998 to 10 successful camps on eight college campuses throughout the state today, and AAUW is now expanding the program nationally. Campers, who are about to enter the eighth grade, stay on college campuses for a week and perform experiments and other hands-on activities and interact with women role models who work in STEM fields.

Attendees are nominated by their seventh grade math and science teachers, and many come from populations where STEM careers may not be an obvious choice. AAUW member volunteers fundraise to subsidize the cost of the camps for campers, and families pay just a nominal fee for girls to attend and participate. AAUW’s commitment ensures that girls will be able to have this empowering experience no matter their socioeconomic status.

The national expansion of Tech Trek camps was inspired by AAUW’s 2010 research report, Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, which made recommendations for helping more girls develop an interest and persist in pursuing STEM careers.

“To be globally competitive, the United States needs more people going into STEM fields,” said AAUW Executive Director Linda D. Hallman. “As 50 percent of the overall workforce but less than 25 percent of the STEM workforce, women need to be the focus of efforts to increase STEM participation in the United States. Encouraging an early interest in STEM for girls makes all the difference. Eighth grade is when a girl’s interest can be either lost or enhanced for a lifetime. We want to make sure these girls know that they can be successful, and we hope that inspiring them leads to more women in the STEM pipeline.”

AAUW supports women and girls in STEM through research, funding, and programs like Tech Trek and Tech Savvy. Tech Savvy, a daylong program created eight years ago by the AAUW Buffalo (NY) Branch, works to expose young women to opportunities and careers in STEM fields though fun, hands-on activities. Like Tech Trek, Tech Savvy has seen great success, and it is expanding to 10 new cities.

AAUW will host an interactive exhibit at a STEM fair on July 17 on Capitol Hill. The event is co-hosted by Women’s Policy Inc. and the leadership of the congressional women’s caucus. The AAUW exhibit will highlight the findings and recommendations of our Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics research, which explores the environmental and social barriers to women’s participation in STEM.

Fiske Guide to Colleges 2014 Lists 18 Public Universities as Best Values

The Fiske Guide to Colleges has long been recognized for providing excellent and highly readable profiles of more than 300 colleges and universities, and this year the Guide also recognizes the best value institutions in the nation based on the relationship of cost and academic quality.

Eighteen public universities in the U.S. are on the list, shown below in alphabetical order.  The Guide also allocates stars for academic quality, with five stars (*****) being the highest.

Please note that the Guide may differ from other publications in its assessment of academic quality because it does not rely on reputation only.  Instead, it considers “the overall academic climate of the institution, including its reputation in the academic world, the quality of the faculty, the level of teaching and research, the academic ability of students, the quality of libraries and other facilities, and the level of academic seriousness among students and faculty members.”

In our view, the Guide is able to do this successfully–though with some surprises–because of its extensive college contacts developed over many years.  We believe it is especially important that the publication shows not only “feel good” atmospherics but also gives readers an idea of just how rigorous a given university is likely to be.

–Evergreen State College ***

–Georgia Tech *****

–Florida ****

–Iowa ****

–Iowa State ***

–Mary Washington ***1/2

–Nebraska ***

–New College of Florida ****

–North Carolina at Asheville ****

–North Carolina at Chapel Hill ****

–Oregon ***1/2

–Oregon State ***

–Purdue ***1/2

–SUNY Binghamton ****1/2

–SUNY Geneseo ***1/2

–Texas at Austin ****1/2

–Texas A&M ****

–Wisconsin ****1/2






UGA Center Is Incubator for Excellence in Undergraduate Research

The track record of the Center for Undergraduate Research Opportunities (CURO) at the University of Georgia makes the center a model of “high-impact” practices that allow students of exceptional promise to engage in faculty-mentored research almost from the day they arrive at the Athens campus. 

Founded in the late 1990s, CURO allows undergraduates, including non-honors students, to

  1. “create a self-selected research career, allowing them to earn credit hours which can count towards degree program completion.
  2. “gain access to presenting (Symposium); funding (Summer Fellowships) and publishing (JURO, the Journal of Undergraduate Research) opportunities.
  3. “form a mentoring relationship focused on conducting research and professional development.
  4. “develop a deeper understanding of their chosen field by working closely with a research faculty mentor.”

As evidence of the center’s success, UGA can point to the involvement of all of the university’s Goldwater scholarship winners in CURO since the center’s inception, and to the fact that CURO has “figured prominently in the programs of study” for 5 Rhodes Scholars,  5 Gates Cambridge Scholars, 4 Marshall Scholars, 3 Mitchell Scholars, 5 Truman Scholars, 5 Udall Scholars, and Fulbright Student Scholars.

We believe that the Goldwater awards are a strong indication of the level of undergraduate support and mentoring at a given institution, and UGA and CURO offer two special programs to augment the already impressive features of the center:

Summer Fellowship Program–In this extremely intensive program, students submit research proposals for 30 fellowships each summer.  If selected, students spend 320-400 hours over the summer working closely with one or more faculty mentors on the research project that the student has self-selected.  The summer fellowship program has “led directly” to 4 Goldwater  and 2 Udall Scholarships.

CURO Honors Scholarship Program–Honors students in their very first semester at UGA may begin their participation in this program, which focuses on developing the writing, presentation, and other professional skills necessary to clarify and develop their research, and to make it as persuasive as possible.  To date, 7 honors scholars have gone on to win Goldwater scholarships.

Please go to this link for more information on CURO eligibility.

New MSU Honors College Students: Why They Chose Honors

Editor’s Note: The following item comes from the staff of Michigan State University Today.

Citing interests in research opportunities, study abroad programs and the flexibility offered by the Michigan State University Honors College, 20 top high school scholars have chosen MSU for the next chapter of their academic careers.

The students’ average high school grade point average is approximately 4.3. The average ACT score is 35 (out of 36) and the average SAT score (critical reading plus math only) is 1520 (out of 1600).

The newest Alumni Distinguished Scholarship and University Distinguished Scholarship recipients hail from Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas and Wyoming.

The scholarships, which are considered among the most competitive awards in the country, are valued at more than $115,000 for in-state students and $190,000 for out-of-state students. They cover full tuition, room and board and a stipend for up to eight semesters of study.

All students will join MSU’s Honors College along with approximately 500 other outstanding incoming students.

Alumni Distinguished Scholars:

  • Rebecca Carlson of Rockford, Rockford High School
  • Kevin Chase of League City, Texas, Clear Creek High School
  • Tyler Alden Cochran of Manhattan, Kan., Manhattan High School
  • Kim Gannon of Downers Grove, Ill., Lemont High School
  • Adam Greene of Taylor, Harry S Truman High School
  • John Groetsch of Holt, Okemos High School
  • Thomas Grubb of Haslett, Haslett High School
  • Laura Hesse of Madison, Ind., Shawe Memorial High School
  • Abigail Lewis Johnson of Winter Springs, Fla., Winter Springs High School
  • Claire Morrison of Grosse Pointe Woods, Grosse Pointe South High School
  • Joseph Mulka of Livonia, Churchill High School
  • Patrick Murray of Taylor, Harry S Truman High School
  • Adam Michał Olszewski of Ann Arbor, Pioneer High School
  • Matthew Suandi of Williamston, Williamston High School
  • Angela Sun of Canton, Plymouth-Canton High School
  • John Wenzel of Haslett, Haslett High School

University Distinguished Scholars:

  • Eric Boerman of Mohnton, Pa., Twin Valley High School
  • Jaazaniah Catterall of Rock Springs, Wyo., Rock Springs High School
  • Zach Farmer of Cincinnati, Ohio, Anderson High School
  • Ana Veskovic of Allentown, Pa., Parkland High School

Alumni Distinguished Scholars were selected from more than 1,100 of the top high school seniors who applied to MSU and took an intensive general knowledge exam. They were then selected by a committee composed of faculty and administrators based on the results of the exam, high school programs and achievements, other standardized test scores and interviews with the finalists.

University Distinguished Scholars were chosen from an MSU applicant pool based on academic records, accomplishments and interviews with the finalists. Students were selected by the director of admissions and dean of the Honors College on the basis of their high school programs, achievements and standardized test scores.

For more information about the scholarships, visit the Honors College or the Office of Admissions.

The End of Affirmative Action in College Admissions: Bad for the Middle Class?

If the recent Supreme Court decision in Fisher v. The University of Texas at Austin ultimately leads to a prohibition on using race-conscious factors in college admissions, one counter-intuitive result could be that middle-class applicants of all races may find it more difficult to get into selective public institutions.

Currently, UT Austin is required to allocate 75 percent of its freshmen spaces to students who graduate in the top 8 percent of their high school classes (2013-2014 academic year).  The remainder of the places may be filled with some consideration given to an applicant’s race, along with many other factors, including socioeconomic status.

Many of the students who are automatically admitted through the top 8 percent formula come from minimally desegregated high schools in poor urban and rural areas of the state, so the automatic formula is a proxy for increasing the enrollment of minority students, many from Dallas, Houston, and the Rio Grande Valley.   About 37 percent of the automatic admits are minority students.

The second group–the 25 percent who do not have to be in the top 8 percent of their high school classes–includes a much higher proportion of students who come from more rigorous high schools.  The “holistic” process utilized to admit these students emphasizes test scores, high school gpa, quality of the high school, leadership, extracurricular activities, work, etc., along with special factors, including race.  But only about 22 percent of holistic admits are minority students.

The interesting thing about the holistic process is that, even though a smaller percentage of minorities are admitted this way, the socioeconomic status of these students is higher, meaning that they “diversify diversity” by including minority students from all socioeconomic levels in the university population.  Aside from being a way to counter racial stereotypes that may be held by white students, these minority students also pay more of the costs of attending UT Austin.

Many high-achieving students of all races also gain admission through the holistic process.  Students at demanding high schools may not rank in the top 8 percent, but many have high SAT scores and even have gpas that are higher than many of the automatic admits.  (The average SAT scores of holistic admits in a recent year was 1902, but for automatic admits the average was 1812.)

For legal purposes, the automatic admission process is considered “race neutral,” and so would likely be allowed to continue if “race conscious” plans are eventually disallowed.  But since the automatic plans are proxies for using race, and because they are also proxies for admitting lower-income students, the use of automatic admission practices alone would leave less room for many high-achieving students of all races who come from strong schools in middle class or high income districts.

The admission of more low-income students will all place greater demands on the ability of the universities to provide financial support to middle-class students.

The University of Colorado at Boulder has experimented with a more sophisticated admissions system that provides “boosts” to applicants who have some degree of disadvantage coupled with evidence of over-achievement.  Highly-qualified applicants who are not disadvantaged are not penalized, yet the boosts for other applicants will still yield a student body with more lower-income students.  Again, added pressure on financial resources is one result.

The Colorado plan is a laudable attempt to increase access, promote diversity, and avoid overt racial considerations.  The point of this article is not to criticize these goals but only to point out the possible impact that the changes in college admissions could have on the middle class.

So in the end, while some non-minority families might complain about what they see as favoritism in current race-conscious practices, the change to race-neutral options might make it even more difficult for middle-class students to gain entrance to selective schools and receive some financial assistance in the process.







Honors Colleges vs. Honors Programs: NCHC Survey of Smaller Institutions

The leadership of the National Collegiate Honors Council (NCHC) has completed a survey of more than 400 honors colleges and programs, many of them at smaller institutions.  The average total enrollment at the colleges surveyed is 6,484.  The average size of the 50 larger state universities we surveyed was much larger, just under 25,000 students.

NCHC President Rick Scott, Dean of the Schedler Honors College at the University of Central Arkansas, released the report.

As we found earlier in the post Honors Colleges vs. Honors Programs, honors colleges tend to have a greater “value added” impact on large universities that are not as selective as some of their counterparts.  For example, UVA, UNC Chapel Hill, Michigan, and UT Austin do not have honors colleges, and their strong “value” is often validated by external rankings and other measures. 

All these universities have strong honors programs, but the extent to which they add value to the universities as a whole is less than the impact of honors colleges on less selective schools. The Barrett Honors College at Arizona State, for example, is a powerful value added feature for the university as a whole.

Most of the two-year and four-year colleges in the NCHC survey are not highly selective.  Therefore, it is not surprising to us that the NCHC survey did in fact show a significant difference in the size and positive impact of honors colleges at these school versus the impact of honors programs.

What this means for prospective students who are looking at honors options offered by smaller or less selective colleges is that, in general, the schools with honors colleges will have stronger honors components, especially in several extremely important categories.

Size–In smaller institutions, the size of the honors component can be especially important.  The survey showed that the average size of responding honors colleges was 814 students, but only 292 students for honors programs.  By contrast, in our evaluation of fifty large university honors colleges and programs, there was only a very slight difference in the relative size.

Staff–The survey found that honors colleges had an average of 4.9 full-time employees, while honors programs had only 1.2 FTEs.

Advising–In the very important area, 77 percent of honors colleges had their own advisers, and only 44 percent of honors programs did.

Prestigious Scholarships–Guidance for outstanding students applying for Rhodes, Truman, Goldwater and other awards was available in 45 percent of the honors colleges but in only 16 percent of honors programs.

Honors Housing–83 percent of honors colleges offered honors residence choices, but only 46 percent of honors programs did so.

Living/Learning Options–Again, 73 percent of honors colleges had living/learning communities, but only 33 percent of honors programs did.

Curriculum–Here, 73 percent of honors colleges also offered departmental honors, while 59 percent of honors programs did so.

Internships–Honors colleges offered much stronger opportunities for internships, 44 percent versus only 22 percent for honors programs.