Is there progress being made in getting more women in STEM fields?

Is there progress being made in getting more women in STEM fields?

This was going to be a write-up highlighting the upcoming Inspiring Women in STEMConference hosted by BIONJ on Friday, Dec 4th. And it still is, but due to some additional findings in my research, its importance takes on a greater magnitude than originally intended.

I was watching the 2015 Medal of Freedom Award ceremony on C-span over the weekend which included honoring Barbara Streisand, Steven Spielberg, and Yogi Berra. One of the other recipients, 17 in all, was Katherine G. Johnson.  I had never heard of her before.  She was being recognized for her social impact as a pioneer in space science and computing.

What an amazing story. She was part of a pool of female mathematicians, nicknamed “computers who wear skirts” in service of NACA, the organization that eventually became NASA, to perform flight calculations and research. She distinguished herself so much that she was singled out and asked to join the all-man flight research team and proved to be so invaluable, they never let her go back to the pool.

She was responsible for calculating the trajectory for the space flight of Alan Shepard, the first American in space.  Her reputation for accuracy was so well-respected that in 1962 when NASA began to use computers for the first time, they called on her to verify the computer’s numbers forJohn Glenn‘s orbit around Earth. She did the same in 1969, in calculating the trajectory of  Apollo 11’s flight to the Moon. She continued her work in space computing and correlating with computers right into the shuttle program where she retired in 1986.


Some forty years later, studies find that female college students are four times less likely than men to major in computer science or engineering, even though they test extremely well in math.

What are the reasons for this? Why has there not been more progress made?

It seems that there are a number of factors. Let’s look at a few of them.


“Ambient Belonging”

One study, Ambient Belonging: How Stereotypical Cues Impact Gender Participation in Computer Science, is being conducted by Dr Sapna Cheryan, a psychology professor from the University of Washington along with three other colleagues, to discover the reasons why girls in high school or women in college are so significantly less likely to sign up for a class in computer science or express interest in it, or engineering as a career.

The study in part explores the impact of the male-influenced setting of a typical computer class—sci-fi posters, technology magazines and other symbols of a tech-centric male. They have found there is a greater interest in enrollment by girls when the environment is more neutral in nature, reflecting a more general-interest atmosphere. Of course, environment also includes attire and conversational norms, as well.

Eileen Pollack, a woman who earned a bachelor of science degree in physics in the 1970s, and left the field because she didn’t feel she belonged, agreed with the study. In an October 10th NY Times Op-Ed, What Really Keeps Women Out of Tech, she described her experiences including her time as a programmer where “men who controlled access to the computer made me listen to a barrage of sexist teasing if I wanted to be given that day’s code to run my program.”

“Environments can act like gatekeepers by preventing people who do not feel they fit into those environments from ever considering membership in the associated groups.” Because successful entry into fields like computer science often require early course completion in technical subjects (Moses, Howe, & Niesz, 1999), making initial sites of exposure, such as classrooms and departments, signal to women that they belong there is critical to ensuring their future participation.”, says the study.


Early Access 

Another factor is early and available access. If there isn’t a logical pathway to get girls interested early in a male-dominated area, despite their aptitude in math, how will they know if this is their calling? If they don’t have the opportunity, how can they even try?

In New York City, as in the rest of the country, the students who elect to take computer science courses tend to be male and either white or Asian. Of the 738 city students who took the Advanced Placement examination in computer science in 2014, only 19 percent were black or Latino and only 29 percent were female (The fractions are even lower nationally). Additionally, fewer than 10 percent of city schools currently offer any form of computer science education, and only 1 percent of students receive it. All estimates are according to the Department of Education.

That is why the September (2015) announcement by NYC mayor Bill DeBlasio, that within 10 years, all of the city’s public schools will be required to offer computer science to all students, is so important. It will give students, all students, especially women and people of color, the opportunity to try something that wasn’t available to them previously.   

Some of the most elite public schools, like Stuyvesant High School, have offered computer science courses for years. The Laboratory School of Finance and Technology, a middle and high school in the Bronx, requires all its students to take computer science courses in each year of middle school.

One of it’s computer science teachers, Ben Samuels-Kalow (a certified social studies teacher who was asked to pilot a program because of his computer skills), found that students are willing to work harder because they are able to see the ‘math’ in use in more tangible terms, like playing a computer game that they designed.

“I’ve literally had a conversation with a student where she’s saying, ‘I really don’t like math’, as she’s walking me through a JavaScript function to have an interactive photo gallery on a web page that she had also built from scratch,” Mr. Samuels-Kalow said. “I looked at her and said, ‘This is harder math than what you’re doing in your math class.’ ”.

New York City plans to spend $81 million over 10 years, half of which it hopes to raise from private sources. Technology companies, which have been criticized for having very few female and minority employees, have supported these efforts, partly to expand and diversify the pool of qualified job applicants.


Mentorship, Role Models and Encouragement in STEM

Who are women seeing in the roles in a particular STEM field when determining their career path and even before that, when setting their academic goals?

If they see only male teachers or males dominating a particular STEM field, how can they picture themselves in that role?

When seeking counseling or mentoring, how important is it to have someone they can identify with to get their advice from?

Fordham University student Alyssa Opdyke, who had originally majored in biology on a pre-med track (now a happy communication and media studies major), wrote an Op-Ed article in which she presented her and her fellow female STEM students’ experiences in coming to their current course of study. They all found mentoring, guidance and encouragement, whether positive, negative or lacking, to be key factors in how their paths were shaped.

One female physics major commented, “I’ve actually been very lucky thus far with my studying experience, I have never been taught science by a woman. I’ve had a female math teacher once here at Fordham, but overall, there is a distinct lack of female mentors and advisors.” For Ms Opdyke herself, she found “general encouragement to study STEM, but a lack of positive mentors to help me stay.”

Another female student, a physics major and math minor, pursuing her PhD in physics, noted that she has always been “aware of a support system for women in STEM fields.” And further, she says that in her senior year of high school “my STEM teachers encouraged me to go into science or engineering and pointed out that being a woman in STEM had some advantages, because girls are in the minority at most engineering schools, a strong female applicant would stand out more.”



Celebrating the life of a woman with such an inspiring story, who helped shape key moments of the space program, should cause us all to reflect on how far we have come but how far we still have yet to go. Technological advances will help humans progress and solve the problems we face in the short- and long-term. And any country that doesn’t produce leaders in science, technology and engineering will find their position to influence in the world, lagging.

Failing to incorporate women into the field in greater numbers creates a significant disadvantage. “Women now earn nearly half of the bachelor’s degrees in mathematics, a percentage that has been rising over the past few decades. In contrast, computer science has over three times the number of undergraduate majors and should have the potential to recruit many more women. However, only 22% of computer science graduates are women, a percentage that has been steadily decreasing (National Science Foundation, 2008).”

This underrepresentation is not just an economic one as it relates to career advancement and income equality but missing out on the inclusion of a female perspective can have negative consequences for society “as evidenced by the negative outcomes attributed to all-male design teams (Margolis & Fisher, 2002).”

So the importance of programs and conferences which connect women to role models and relatable mentors, encouraging women to enter STEM fields cannot be emphasized enough.

Don’t forget the upcoming Inspiring Women in STEM Conference hosted by BIONJ on Friday Dec 4th.