Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Class of 2013: What's Pushing Women Out of the Sciences

Originally posted by Bruce Kasanoff here
May 21, 2013

Graduates of 2013, you don't need to hear from another gray-haired man. The invitation to create this speech arrived the same day my daughter - who is also graduating this month - sent me a draft of her senior thesis. I took this as a sign it would be more helpful for me to share insights from one of your own.

Alyssa's thesis explores why women drop out of STEM majors: science, technology, engineering and math.

In the United States, men comprise about 75% of all STEM majors. There are many reasons why this is a problem, but let me just state the most obvious. For economic reasons, we need far more people to go into these majors; if half our citizens shy away from these majors, we will never have as much talent as we need.

I'd like to suggest that it is up to you to solve this problem. Not because my generation can't solve it, but because we haven't.

Alyssa attends Hamilton College in upstate New York. When it comes to attracting women to STEM majors, Hamilton actually does better than many colleges and universities. Most of their science departments, except for Computer Science and Physics, have roughly equal numbers of men and women. For the first time ever, this year their math department has more female than male majors.

Alyssa interviewed two groups of women at Hamilton: current STEM majors and those who are STEM "dropouts."

Both groups perceived that STEM classes tend to be competitive and unfriendly, in contrast to how other courses are taught at Hamilton. The majors "dealt with it," but even they didn't like it.

To quote from Alyssa's thesis: most dropouts and majors agreed that the competitive culture and climate of the classroom was the worst in the introductory courses. These courses tended to encourage memorization and had a weed-out feel... students often felt like professors did not necessarily want to see them succeed.

College is supposed to be hard. You are supposed to be challenged. There is nothing wrong with that. Hamilton has many other majors that are also difficult, but female students perceive that they are not as competitive and unfriendly.

Hamilton is a small, liberal arts school. I can only imagine what many of you faced in larger schools. One thing is for certain: too few female graduates will be entering STEM professions this year, even though many of you remain interested in STEM areas.

Alyssa's thesis also reports that: the STEM dropouts were students who had legitimate interest in the fields, and who may have pursued the majors to completion had they not perceived an unwelcoming and dissatisfying culture. The STEM majors, on the other hand, were intensely dedicated and goal driven; most of them planned to become researchers or professors from a very young age and were not willing to let obstacles get in their way. That is, often times the STEM majors were unhappy with the STEM culture, yet had such a strong end goal in mind that they were willing to disregard their feelings about their courses, and sought out welcoming environments in other disciplines to compensate for their experiences in their major.
This is a huge problem, and it's not just because we're not attracting enough women into STEM majors. It's also a problem because we are teaching STEM professionals to interact in what some might consider to be an antisocial manner.

Our companies and institutions would be much better served by professionals who know how to collaborate on diverse teams. Increasingly, programmers and designers, engineers and marketers, data scientists and customer experience professionals must work side by side.

Some of you are STEM dropouts, but you still harbor an interest in these subjects. For you, I have two words: graduate school. It's not too late to give it one more try.

Some of you are STEM graduates. Some will go into teaching, or training. You will work with other disciplines. At the risk of sounding like an old softie, I urge you to work towards a kinder, gentler, and more welcoming environment. I find it difficult to understand why computer science or math can't be taught in small groups, especially when I see kids in my neighborhood - literally kids - teaching each other to program, and to solve tough programming challenges.

The prolific author, Douglas Rushkoff, wrote a book called Program or Be Programmed. “Choose the former,” says Rushkoff, “and you gain access to the control panel of civilization. Choose the latter, and it could be the last real choice you get to make.”
The prolific author, Douglas Rushkoff, wrote a book called Program or Be Programmed. “Choose the former,” says Rushkoff, “and you gain access to the control panel of civilization. Choose the latter, and it could be the last real choice you get to make.”

Your generation can't allow programming and Big Data and product development and hard science to be the domain of half our population. You can't afford to condemn the women who all their lives have wanted to work in STEM professions to spend their careers as a minority.

My generation got it wrong. Yours can do far better.

Bruce Kasanoff (Twitter: NowPossible) can be found at Kasanoff.com.

No comments:

Post a Comment