Much has been made about the lack of women working in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. Case in point: while approximately 57% of all college graduates are women, only 44% of mathematics majors are women and just 20% are engineering majors. And although boys and girls are similarly successful in high school mathematics courses, fewer girls than boys show an interest in STEM fields outside of the biological sciences.
What keeps women from continuing on in many of the STEM fields in college? More importantly, how can we help women who do choose to study one of these fields persist?
Research suggests that the environment women experience in college can significantly impact their success in STEM majors. For example, the presence of female role models validates that women can continue in these fields. And gender stereotypes can be challenged (or reinforced) within the college setting.
When we strive to create an environment where women are unafraid to pursue their mathematical goals and where women strongly believe in their ability to succeed, they are more likely to retain and be successful in these fields.
At Meredith, for instance, we offer a range of activities that positively impact our students through the Pascal Scholars program. Such programming includes a first year experience course to directly mentor these students and help them become a part of their department from the beginning of their college careers. In an annual mentoring event, students are connected with alumnae in their fields of study who can help guide them in their future career aspirations. We also seek additional ways to help our students engage within the larger STEM community through volunteering for local science fairs or other organizations.
All of these efforts are paying off. Meredith was recently awarded a National Science Foundation grant that takes the idea of creating an engaging STEM community to another level. [Read more on page 15.] Expanded programming will include a summer STEM institute and a study-away opportunity as well as undergraduate research options.
These efforts at Meredith, and similar programs at other universities and colleges, are helping to create an environment that helps women persist − and ultimately succeed − in all of our STEM fields. Parents of young women who are planning to study a STEM field should ask about such programs as part of their college search process.
As a mathematics educator, I am deeply committed to helping close this gender gap for a number of reasons. Women achieving their dreams make society better for everyone. I believe that women should have the opportunity to pursue any and all fields of study. Women bring a diversity of perspectives to complex problems that need creative solutions. To address the challenges facing us in today’s world, we need all of our best minds working − regardless of their gender.
Jennifer Hontz, Ph.D., professor of mathematics, is passionate about ensuring women are successful in mathematics, encouraging women to major in mathematics as well as all STEM majors. Hontz has two B.S. degrees, one in mathematics education and the other in applied mathematics. She completed a Ph.D. in mathematics in the area of Kac-Moody Lie Algebras of Indefinite type in 1998. Hontz has been at Meredith College since 2000, where she actively participates in the Mathematics Association of America (MAA) at both the National and Sectional level.