Sex & Relationships

Why few women major in STEM fields, and what the UO is doing to change that

Prejudice comes in many forms. Sometimes, it shows itself through personal conflicts — through bullying, taunting or hate crimes. Other times, it comes in the form of legal matters — through withholding the right to vote or the right to marry.

Often, though, prejudice comes in shapes a bit more subtle. University of Oregon student Kate Karfilis experienced it in the form of an anonymous comment made in response to her request for a fellowship.

After she applied for a grant to fund scientific research, an anonymous reviewer of her application referred to Karfilis’ female co-mentor as “merely a pair of x chromosomes.”

To some, the comment may have appeared harmless — at most, an innocent joke gone wrong. But to Karfilis it was a reminder of a local and national problem: the underrepresentation of women in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields.

One look at data compiled by the UO’s Office of Institutional Research from fall 2013, says it all: 34.2 percent of undergraduates majoring in mathematics are female, while 42.8 percent of chemistry majors are. Females make up 20.9 percent of physics majors, while computer science undergraduates have the lowest percentage with an unsettling 14.1 percent.

These low numbers reflect a problem that is hardly just local. According to a 2011 report by the U.S. Department of Commerce, women hold only 25 percent of jobs in the STEM fields. Considering that women now make up close to a half of all jobs in the U.S., some say this is especially daunting. Add that to the fact that women in STEM careers earn on average 33 percent more than females in other fields, and the results are even more surprising. Why, if STEM careers are so fruitful, would there not be more women working in the field?

Although Dr. Dean Livelybrooks, a UO physics instructor, doesn’t have a clear answer to this question, he is trying to change the reality. Because of the lack of diversity in STEM — both of females and minorities —  he founded STEM CORE, a group that focuses on recruiting and sustaining students in the STEM fields, in 2012. He and his team work with students all the way from kindergarten to grad school, providing outreach programs to young students and providing students with scholarships to allow them to fund research projects, all in an effort to enhance the STEM career pipeline.

“We want to give people hands-on experience. Diversity is important, and the STEM fields are lacking in this diversity nation-wide,” Livelybrooks said.

Since becoming a physics advisor at the UO in 1998, Livelybrooks has seen his fair share of women climbing back down the ladder of science. Many give up and he’s not quite sure why. Even with all the benefits of this work — the self-fulfillment, the money — he says a lot of women still don’t stay.

That’s where the question of role models might come in. If women don’t stay in the STEM career path, will other women have trouble seeing themselves there? Does an undergraduate student perusing the university’s physics department webpage feel deterred when she sees that only two out of 32 faculty members are female?

Livelybrooks thinks so. That’s why one of his priorities is to hire more female faculty. But at a time when female physics faculty members are in high demand around the country, the physics department is struggling to do so.

Karyn Lewis, a UO psychology graduate, has done research that proves how important hiring more female faculty is. Along with her graduate advisor, Dr. Sara Hodges, Lewis researched self-perception, belonging and their relationship to the underrepresentation of women in the STEM fields.

In one study, Lewis researched how advertising a scientific field of study to advanced undergraduate students — either with a male-dominated or gender-neutral paper brochure — affected one’s likelihood to go in to that field. Another studied how both male and female first-year graduate students in STEM fields perceive their effort compared to the average student in their field.

The results for both were striking. The women who were shown a male-dominated brochure for a fictitious scientific field, “eco-psychology,” said they would be significantly less interested in the field than the group of women who were shown a gender-equal brochure (one that showed both male and female faculty names and faces). Men who participated in that study, on the other hand, weren’t affected by the differences in brochures.

In the second study, although the men’s and women’s GPAs were roughly the same, the women perceived themselves to be struggling more than the average student in their field, whereas men did not. Not surprisingly, these women also reported a low sense of belonging in their field of interest. This directly affected their self-perceived motivation when it came to continuing in their field.

Both of these studies showed Lewis two things: that hard work doesn’t always pay off, not when you think your hard work is unique to you, and that feeling you belong in a field of study, is directly correlated with your desire to stay in that group. Belonging matters. Self-perceptions matter. Stereotypes matter.

“Unfortunately, a lot of our perceptions about STEM fields is that talent in these fields comes ‘naturally’ to those who are good at them,” Lewis said. “But this idea that you don’t have to work hard at it is, ultimately, hurting students interested, especially women who already have to deal with pre-existing stereotypes that math and science shouldn’t come easy to them. However, our research shows that by normalizing this effort, by making clear that it is hard for everyone — both males and females — more women will choose to stick with it.”

Gender stereotypes might explain why certain STEM fields, such as human physiology and biology, (fields that some might consider “softer,” more “people-friendly”), are the only science fields in which UO women make up approximately half or more of the undergraduate pool. From data collected fall 2013, 59.4 percent of UO’s biology undergrads are female, while 55.4 percent of undergraduates majoring in general science are female. 59.8 percent of human physiology undergraduates are female. The only STEM field at the UO in which women make up more than half of its undergraduate majors is psychology, with a whopping 70.1 percent.

“Even though these fields take no less effort,” said Karfilis, a graduate student in molecular biology and the president of UO’s Women in Graduate Science, “certain stereotypes that exist about women — that they’re more social or more sensitive — might bring more women in to these fields of study.”

Emily Schwarz, a computer science graduate student and vice president of the Women in Computer Science group on campus, sees the kind of self doubt that Lewis researched among women in her field, including herself.

“A guy in computer science can get a C on a test and not think about it again,” Schwarz said. “While a woman gets a B and she may start questioning her intelligence in the field. There’s a lot of insecurities that go along with being one of the only women there.”

The comment the anonymous reviewer made may have appeared harmless to some, but for people like Karfilis, Dr. Livelybrooks, Lewis and Schwarz, those words mean so much more.

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Katherine Marrone

Katherine Marrone

Katherine Marrone is the sex and relationships writer for the Emerald. A feminist and activist, she likes writing about gender issues and social justice.