STEM-ing the Tide

Remedies can prevent attrition of girls and women from STEM

Social psychologist Nilanjana (Buju) Dasgupta is part of an ongoing group advising the National Science Foundation on strategies to promote diversity in the nation’s education system and workforce in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Her most recent study found that early in their undergraduate years, young women in engineering majors felt more confident about their ability, a greater motivation and sense of belonging in engineering, and less anxiety if they had a female peer mentor. At the end of the first college year, a remarkable 100 percent of female students mentored by advanced female peers were still in engineering majors.

Dasgupta is particularly interested in finding and testing effective remedies grounded in solid science. “There’s been enormous public interest in identifying the leaky pipeline problem and its impact on the U.S. workforce,” she says, “but far less attention has been paid to identifying and testing effective interventions that can solve the problem.”

In her research, Dasgupta tests a range of factors—the influence of teachers, professors, and peers and the effects of teaching styles and classroom dynamics—to determine which bolster women’s confidence, interest, and career aspirations in STEM, and which have no effect or even a negative effect. Her team, which includes graduate students and postdocs, employs various types of research methodologies. Sometimes they conduct longitudinal field experiments that introduce a specific intervention in students’ lives. The researchers then follow the students over the course of a semester, a year, or their entire undergraduate careers to test whether the intervention has any effect, and, if it does, how long it endures. Dasgupta’s team also conducts brief lab experiments in which students are placed in specific situations—for instance, assigned to various types of work teams—and observed to determine whether their behavior changes as a result.

While her work continues, after a decade of research, Dasgupta has identified a number of interventions that can help retain women in STEM. They include:

#1: Make sure female students in STEM classes know about women scientists, engineers, and technology innovators.

If female students hear about scientists and engineers who are women through their STEM courses—through anecdotes professors share in class or biographical inserts in their readings—it keeps them motivated and interested in pursuing STEM careers.

#2: When possible, have more female professors or graduate teaching assistants teach entry-level or “gateway” classes.

Female students taught by female professors exhibit more confidence in their STEM abilities and indicate more interest in STEM careers than women with male professors.

#3: Match female students in male-dominated fields with peer mentors who are women.

Students with female mentors did better on a number of measures than those matched with male mentors or no mentor at all. “Students with female mentors felt they belonged in engineering more,” Dasgupta says. “They felt more confident about their abilities and their interest in pursuing engineering careers and graduate degrees increased.” By the end of the year, 100 percent of women with female mentors were still in the major, as opposed to 82 percent of those with male mentors and 89 percent of those with no mentors. The research found that even after their mentorships ended, women who’d had same-sex mentors continued to show higher levels of confidence and more interest in engineering careers—a long-term beneficial effect Dasgupta likens to a “social vaccine.”

#4: Make sure that student work groups are at least 50 percent female.

Much work in the sciences is done in teams, and the gender balance of those teams has significant consequences for its female members, Dasgupta  found.

#5: Timing matters.

Due to their anxiety about new environments and worries about whether they will fit in, girls and women are particularly vulnerable to attrition from STEM at developmental transition points—when they move from middle to high school, high school to college, college to the workforce. So it’s important to employ interventions designed to retain them at those times.

Dasgupta is a former fellow in the UMass Amherst Public Engagement Project, which supports faculty in bringing their research to the public. She often presents her work to audiences who can shape the future for girls and women in STEM. “I want to take the research back to the public, the people who train and hire the next generation, and those who make decisions that can either remedy or exacerbate inequalities, with the hope that they use our data to inform their teaching practices and policy decisions,” she says. Learn more.