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Success Strategies for Women in Stem

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Success Strategies for Women in STEM

Brooke Virost

University of Michigan Dearborn

As war emerged and men were called to defend their country, there was a substantial gap in the workforce. A new culture began as women took on these roles. This transition came with significant criticism and skepticism as men questioned if women could manage these traditionally male dominate roles (Trauth, Quensenberry & Huang, 2009).  As time progressed, the economy become a boxing ring of women fighting for their rights seeking equal treatment and opportunity. Our society has made substantial progress with incorporating women into the workplace, but there is still progress to be made with our STEM industry.  To this day, we have nearly 8.6 million STEM jobs in May 2015 (Fayer, Lacy & Watson, 2017). The challenge we are facing with STEM is the stark comparison of underrepresented women versus men in the field.  For example, women make up 15% of engineers, 12% of physicists and astronomers, and 24% of computer and informational scientist (Lewis, Stout, Finkelstein, Pollock, Mikyake, Cohen & Ito, 2017).  As a woman holding a STEM undergraduate degree and career, I am interested in improving the ability to attract and retain women in the STEM fields. To obtain this goal, I am interested in learning what factors impact the retention and motivation of women in STEM fields. This gap of women in STEM careers poses two social inequality threats to women. First, women are not experiencing the high financial profit of STEM careers and second, the industry is lacking highly capable contenders. (Lewis et al., 2017). Extensive research has investigated this anomaly with factors such as effort level, belongingness and self-efficacy all impacting women’s perception of STEM jobs. To further examine this topic, I accessed the University of Michigan Mardigian Library to search for scholarly articles researching factors that impact women’s attraction and retention to STEM fields.

Authors Smith, Lewis, Hawthorne and Hodges (2012) hypothesized that the correlation between the women’s perception of their efforts would impact their motivation. The authors surveyed first-year STEM graduates (75 women) at the University of Oregon (OU; n = 81) and Montana State University (MSU; n = 68).   Each student was provided a Likert-type scale evaluating their effort levels, academic belonging and motivation. Using hypothesized mediation model, the results showed women feel they provide higher efforts than what men reported.  In addition, the higher efforts were negatively related to motivation for women. Women who felt they put in more efforts reported a lower sense of belonging which in turn lowered motivation for their field (Smith et al., 2012). In contrast, the results show that men’s initial sense of belonging predict their intent to pursue the course, while women’s sense of belonging changes over the course of the term (Smith et al., 2012).

        This study was further reinforced in 2017 when researchers reviewed women’s sense of belonging, which they define as the “feeling of fitting in and being included as a valued and legitimate member in a particular setting” (Lewis et al., 2017). In addition, they also measured the levels of self-efficacy and its relation to persistence in STEM.  In their study, they evaluated 68 academic computing departments across the United States for undergraduate and graduate students (Lewis et al., 2017.  Students were provided surveys that evaluated their sense of belonging and self-efficacy.  In addition, they were asked “Since declaring or planning to declare your computing major, have you seriously considered changing to a non-computing major” and asked to provide a yes or no answer (Lewis et al., 2017).  Using a structural invariance model, they computed the student responses and derived the following two conclusions: First, women have a lower sense of belonging and self-efficacy than men in STEM fields. Second, that sense of belonging was a bigger indicator than self-efficacy for choosing to stay within a program. (Lewis et al., 2017).  This leads to the conclusion that external factors effect women’s desire to stay within STEM fields more than intrinsic factors.

In a study performed in 2009, researchers evaluate three organizational influences that affect women’s retention in the IT field: work life balance, organizational climate and mentoring (Trauth et al., 2009). Starting with work life balance, researchers reviewed multiple studies and concluded that work life balance issues have the most negative effect on women’s performance during early career choice and advancement to management stages (Judge & Bretz, Armstrong 2007).  This is due to societal messages that influence their perception of family responsibilities and flexibility to determine work schedules. Women feel they must neglect family obligations to feel eligible for promotional opportunities like those of men (Trauth et al., 2009). Researchers then investigated organizational climate which they defined as the patterns of behavior and the repercussions of those behaviors. (Trauth et al, 2009). In their study review, they found organizational climate is the most crucial factor of career retention decisions. They note that organizations have been dominated by masculine value systems, such as isolation, competition and directive leadership style, which lead to women being physically and psychologically excluded.  In a study on organization climate, Morgan (1998) suggest incorporating a climate that focuses on team building, connection, mutual achievement and emotional engagement will help balance the forms of behavior.  Finally, using a study by Higgins and Kram (2001), researchers evaluate mentoring programs and their function within corporations.  They see a positive trend with these programs to enhance skills, promote discussion and increase networking opportunities (Allen & Eby, 2004).  These groups enhance the sense of competence in young females, allowing the development of ideas that improve the workplace culture. Higgins & Kram (2001) assert that the outcomes of mentoring programs are affected by both work environment and characteristics of the individuals such as gender, age, race and background. These variables impact the outcome of the programs, which means it is vital they are examined closely to provide insight into the elements necessary for successful results (Higgins & Kram, 2001).

With peer mentoring being such a strong impact for retaining women in STEM, it has been heavily reviewed for optimization and implementation in the workplace. Researchers reviewed the evaluation of peer mentoring systems of women faculty in STEM department to determine the potential.  The study was preformed at Ohio State University with participation from 27 departments in three colleges totaling 42 STEM faculty women who agreed to participate in peer mentoring circles (Thomas, Bystydzienski & Desai, 2015). The circles were comprised of twelve to fifteen women who met monthly for a two-hour period where they were encouraged to discuss topics related to issues they faced within their role and exchange ideas of dealing with them.  They used a Likert type scale survey to gather feedback with questions targeted to measuring their satisfaction of the group and motivation to stay within their field. Two main questions from the survey stood out: First, “My sense of OSU as a supportive community has strengthened because of participating in a circle,” which went from 47% in June 2010 to 53% in June 2011.  Second, “Participation in a circle has increased the likelihood that I will stay at OSU” which went from 28% in June 2010 to 40% in June 2011. In addition to the survey, participants were asked to provide essays that evaluated their learnings from the circle (Thomas et al., 2015).  The participants provided feedback to develop peer mentoring circles within the universities, with hopes of creating department cultures more responsive to needs of female faculty. Peer mentoring can help incorporate the feeling of belongingness because it helps women adapt to their environment and create an atmosphere tailored to needs of women.  (Thomas et al., 2015).  Peer mentoring may then provide a path for revolution by allowing women to discuss their concerns and develop solutions. In their feedback, they were told to provide more structure in the circles and prepared material on specific topics. In addition, they requested the peer mentoring circle issues and solutions be established within the university structures. A key struggle identified was organization of the sessions to accommodate the diverse needs of all participants. Comparing their first evaluation in 2008 to their final evaluation in 2011, they saw a significant decrease in dissatisfaction from 56.9 to 52.8. (Thomas et al., 2015).  

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