Women’s colleges provide a unique, supportive environment for women to succeed in science and math.
For too many students, college is a time to give up on dreams of pursuing a science, technology, engineering or math career – and this is especially true for women and minorities.
From 2009 to 2013, approximately 22 percent of women entered college intending to major in STEM fields, but only 9 percent of women nationally actually earned a STEM degree.
But the STEM pipeline for women does not need to leak at the undergraduate level – and women’s colleges may be able to show us how.
Research suggests that two related issues contribute to women earning fewer STEM degrees despite interest and admission:
First, gender stereotypes lead to unequal distribution of mentors and lab opportunities that are needed for success. A recent study at Yale University showed that when American science professors reviewed a group of hypothetical resumes, they rated those with female names as less competent than those with male names – though the resumes had identical qualifications. These professors were less likely to say they would hire the female applicants overall and offered them lower salaries and fewer mentoring opportunities.
Second, female students who do not feel a sense of belonging in STEM fields are less likely to persist. In 2012, researchers performed a longitudinal study of students enrolled in calculus and asked participants to assess their sense of being accepted, respected or disregarded. They found women’s sense of belonging predicted greater confidence in their math abilities and their intention to pursue math in the future, even after controlling for other factors.
Women’s colleges, by their nature, do not create these extra challenges for female students. In an all-female environment, gender biases can’t affect the allocation of opportunities. STEM faculty must mentor women, and they give women all of the opportunities to work in their labs. Moreover, women in all-female STEM departments have a built-in sense of belonging, with plentiful female role models and female-majority work groups.
The data suggest that these factors give women’s college STEM students an advantage. For example, from 2011-2013, the percent of women graduating with a STEM degree at all-female Bryn Mawr College was two-and-a-half times the national average. During that same period, less than 1 percent of women nationally majored in mathematics. At Bryn Mawr, nearly 9 percent did.
If schools across the country truly want to increase the number of female STEM graduates, they can learn from women’s colleges. They must track allocation of opportunities to ensure fair distribution. They must be vigilant about neutralizing implicit bias and subtle messages about who belongs and can achieve in STEM fields. They can create female majority workgroups and they can develop mentoring programs for alumnae and female students in STEM fields.
The inherent structural advantages of a women’s college enable numerous women to persist and succeed in STEM fields. By attending to and replicating – as far as possible – these supportive structures, all institutions can build a more inclusive future