Supporting prospective women in STEM starts with accessible mentors

"A recent UW study explored current gender disparities in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields, and it concluded that an unwelcoming culture was the main deterrent to women entering these fields.

Lead author Sapna Cheryan, an associate professor in psychology, said that most studies focus on disparities in STEM fields as a whole, but this one focused on the presence of higher representation in some fields versus others. Although women are well-represented in certain STEM fields like biology, chemistry, and math, the disparity becomes more apparent in computer science, engineering, and physics. 

“What we wanted to do was really shift the focus, putting the lens on women in the fields and understanding why is it that some fields have been able to incorporate women better than others,” Cheryan said. “By doing that, I think it opens up a new avenue of solutions. Instead of changing the women, you could instead change the culture of these fields to make women feel more welcome.”

The study attributed potential differences between more and less gender-balanced fields to the presence of masculine culture in the classroom, which encompasses current stereotypes about who has ability in STEM fields, and a lack of relatable role models. Another significant factor is insufficient early exposure to engineering and physics fields. Courses in computer science, engineering, and physics are not offered as frequently at the high school level compared to biology, chemistry, and mathematics. 

Lack of prior experience can deter students, especially women, from taking weed-out classes and applying to programs that are less gender-balanced. This makes sense. If you’re thrown into a class where 50 percent of the class will fail and you’re learning the material for the first time, staying afloat seems like a Sisyphean task.

Lack of exposure to engineering fields prior to college also plays a role in potential disparities. Addressing this problem starts with creating a culture where women are encouraged to explore these fields and access mentors who can connect with them on an intellectual and experiential level..."