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Plug the leaks

More women needed in STEM careers by DINA NASH Special to the Democrat-Gazette | March 25, 2023 at 2:47 a.m.

March is Women's History Month in the U.S., and on most college campuses there is celebration of at least one week as Women's Week.

Women's History Month started in England as an outgrowth of the women's suffrage movement. For 2023, the United Nations' theme has focus on two aspects of women and digital technology: Women are under-represented and under-promoted in science and technology (STEM) careers, and are harassed and stalked online in digital space.

In 2005, Jacob Blickenstaff reported from studying the pipeline into STEM careers that 80 percent of engineering and 60 percent of physical science bachelor's degrees in the U.S. were awarded to men in 1999-2000.

At the Ph.D. level, 84 percent of engineering degrees and 75 percent of physical science degrees went to men. Even in biology, where 58 percent of bachelor's degrees were awarded to women, 56 percent of Ph.D.s went to men.

We don't have figures on what percentage of those women attempted these degrees versus what percentage of males attempted them. However, even when 55.1 percent of women made Cs or better averages in their science classes, only 51 percent of men did so.

Arkansas ranks 45th in the percentage of women in STEM careers: 3.4 percent of STEM jobs were filled by women in 2013, versus 7.1 percent by men. This needs to change. Heeding the need for more women in STEM careers, in 2009 President Barack Obama launched the Education to Innovation program, which encouraged more women to enter science and technology fields. But the progress of women into tech and computer careers was very slow.

So tech companies asked for research on how to better include women and minorities in preparation for STEM careers.

Heidi Blackburn studied women in the STEM career pipeline from 2007-2017. She was able to learn many factors which cause leaks in the pipeline from kindergarten to being hired.

Thanks to Dr. Blackburn's work, we now know specific factors which encourage more women and minority women to join and succeed in STEM fields: access to early K-12 formal and informal experiences with science and technology; good mentoring and deliberate support by teachers; a positive feeling about one's math abilities by high school; the use of recruitment materials which include women and minority success stories; contact with female teachers and other role models; libraries which contain research that relates well to female and minority students; equal access to tutoring; and better funding for higher education in these fields.

Another leak in the pipeline can result from the intersectionality of gender (being a mother), age, and race. Transferring from a community college to a four-year college often caused problems for women in STEM courses if the community college classes were not equivalent. Also, STEM-student dorms helped retain women from freshman year to career.

I can relate to this issue since I did not have a strong algebra background in high school, even though I made As and Bs. Therefore, in my Ph.D. program, when I got to upper-level statistics courses and differential equations, I had a lot of trouble and hired a tutor.

The male tutor was a foreign student who quit to defend his thesis right when I needed him most. This coincided with a difficult passage as a single parent of a difficult teen, the combination of which threw me out of the pipeline to a Ph.D. program in a social science.

I was not alone: Four of the five women in that program did not graduate from it either, after passing all the coursework with Bs. There were no female faculty members in the department and no tutoring support for or mentoring by females. Finding reliable child care all summer was a nightmare, since camps and summer programs were often short and had to be pieced together, or the hours did not coincide with my classes.

A tornado took out our power for two weeks, just when final papers were due. My daughter had chicken pox during finals week, and I had to find a nurse to come in and care for her. My calculator was faulty and gave me false results for two weeks.

I felt like I was swimming upstream with a heavy pack on my back for three years, but I did finish a second master's degree in a social science which earned me many enjoyable years as a teacher at Northwest Arkansas Community College and UALR.

To learn more about brave women who have coped with difficult obstacles to success in science and technology careers, you can take part in a university program on women's history. For instance, at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, there is a talk you can see and hear from wherever you live by Dr. Valandra, a professor in the UA Social Work and the African and African American Studies Department, who will talk about four generations of women in a Black Arkansas family, showcasing their agency and resilience.

It will be on Zoom from 3:30-5 p.m. March 29. Details for joining can be found by Googling "Women's History Month-University of Arkansas."

Dina Nash is a retired social worker and criminologist who lives in Fayetteville.

Print Headline: Plug the leaks


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