Jane McAuliffe, president of Bryn Mawr College, on her school’s recognized success in turning out graduates in science, technology, engineering and mathematics:
Bryn Mawr College is in the top 10 among all colleges and universities in terms of the percentage of female graduates pursuing doctorates in the STEM fields. Our students are six times more likely to graduate with a degree in chemistry than college students nationwide and nine times more likely to do so in math. In fact, Bryn Mawr is second in the nation in the percentage of female students receiving degrees in math, beating out such science-oriented universities as the California Institute of Technology and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and has 18 times the national average of female students graduating in physics.
Which is impressive by any measure. But what’s their secret?
When we ask our STEM majors what it is about Bryn Mawr that encourages them to pursue these male-dominated fields we consistently hear two things being exposed to role models among our faculty, alumnae, and their fellow students, and the positive effect of being in a classroom in which they aren’t the lone woman.
This makes sense to John Rosenberg:
President McAuliffe’s explanation of Bryn Mawr’s success sounds remarkably similar to the answer Alan Leshner, CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, gave to a House committee two years ago when asked about the underrepresentation of women in the STEM fields, except Biology. There are more women in Biology, Leshner explained, because there are more women in Biology: “In biological sciences, one reason that the majority of degrees are now granted to women is because the number of female role models in that field far outnumbers the other STEM fields.”
Of course, if you’re the lone woman in the class, you’re surrounded by men, and for some, that may be a distraction:
Researchers at the University of Buffalo have published a study finding that when women are “pursuing romantic goals” they tend to shy away from academic work in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). In two experiments, subjects were exposed to images and conversations that primed them to think about dating, and then completed questionnaires regarding their interest in pursuing STEM versus other majors. Women who thought about dating and not intelligence or friendship reported less interest in STEM fields. A third component of the study asked women to keep track of their feelings of romance and their interest in math, and found that the two were at odds.
John Rosenberg follows up:
Whether or not it is true that girls more than boys are lured away from STEM classes by romance, the success of Bryn Mawr and other women’s colleges in producing women scientists does suggest women do better without men around to distract them.
Hard to pursue both PhD and “Mrs” degrees at the same time, I suppose.
And lastly, a comment from Rosenberg’s daughter Jessie (BS Bryn Mawr ’04, PhD Caltech ’10):
[I]f a little bit of recruiting effort can induce women to go into science who were initially interested but were turned off by the environment, then I consider that a net plus (for both the women, and for science). But not to the point of misleading women about what working in the sciences is like: it’s difficult work, takes long hours, and is often cutthroat. I don’t see a problem with undergraduate environments mimicking that at least a little bit, even if it does turn away the softhearted male or female.
All this tells me that the underrepresentation of women in the STEM fields is temporary: eventually, the other disciplines will reach the same critical mass that the biological sciences did, although it is not likely to happen quickly enough to satisfy the people whose job it is to get upset by concepts like “underrepresentation.”