What Women Should Look For in College STEM Programs

Posted by: Jennifer Hontz, Professor of Mathematics; Co-Director of Dual Degree Engineering; Department Head of Mathematics and Computer Science

Meredith student wearing goggles and gloves working with scientific equipment

So you’re thinking about pursuing a career in a science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) field? Wonderful! As a professor of mathematics, I’m passionate about ensuring women are successful in STEM majors.

If you’re considering going into one of these fields, I’m sure you’re aware that fewer women work in STEM. Case in point: while approximately 57% of all college graduates are women, only 44% of mathematics majors are women and just 20% are engineering majors. And although boys and girls are similarly successful in high school mathematics courses, fewer girls than boys show an interest in STEM fields outside of the biological sciences.

What keeps women from continuing on in many of the STEM fields in college? More importantly, how can women like you – who want to study one of these fields – persist?

Research suggests that the environment women experience in college can significantly impact their success in STEM majors. For example, the presence of female role models validates that we as women can continue in these fields. And gender stereotypes can be challenged (or reinforced) within the college setting.

Programs that help women succeed

All of this means that if you plan to go into a STEM field and you are considering where to go to college, there are certain things that you can look for to help you succeed. Specifically, you should look for an environment where women are encouraged to pursue their academic goals and where women strongly believe in their ability to succeed.

At Meredith, for instance, we offer a range of activities that positively impact our STEM students through the Pascal Scholars program. Such programming includes a first year experience course to help them become a part of their department from the beginning of their college careers. In an annual mentoring event, students are connected with alumnae in their fields of study who can help guide them in their future career aspirations. We also seek additional ways to help our students engage within the larger STEM community through volunteering for local science fairs or other organizations. Thanks to a significant grant that we were just awarded to fund AWE-STEM, we’re adding programming that will include a summer STEM institute and a study-away opportunity as well as undergraduate research options.

These efforts at Meredith, and similar programs at other universities and colleges, help to create an environment that helps women persist – and ultimately succeed – in all of our STEM fields. I encourage you and your family to ask about such programs as part of your college search process.

Faculty support is essential

In addition, pay attention to the faculty with whom you’ll be studying. Are there a significant number of female faculty members? Are they active in their professional organizations, and engaged in research that sounds exciting to you? Talk to a female student (or two or three) in your proposed field of study. Ask her if she feels supported and encouraged, and whether she feels as though she has equal opportunities for experiential learning such as undergraduate research. All of these things will make a real difference to your college experience, and will help you persist, even in the face of inevitable challenges.

As a mathematics educator, I am deeply committed to helping close the STEM gender gap for a number of reasons. Women achieving their dreams makes society better for everyone. I believe that women should have the opportunity to pursue any and all fields of study. Women bring a diversity of perspectives to complex problems that need creative solutions. To address the challenges facing us in today’s world, we need all of our best minds working – regardless of their gender.

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