December 2011 Archways

President’s Column

Dear Friends,

President Jane McAuliffeAddressing the underrepresentation of women in STEM—science, technology, engineering, mathematics —is a national priority. Most recently, the debate on STEM workforce issues has focused on

  • Low female participation rates in STEM jobs, despite an increase in the numbers of women earning degrees in STEM disciplines. While women fill close to half of all jobs in the U.S. economy, they hold less than 25 percent of science, technology, engineering and math jobs, according to an August 2010 report, “Women in STEM: A Gender Gap to Innovation,” by the U.S. Department of Commerce.
  • The insufficient number of college graduates, both male and female, with strong STEM competencies.

I have added my voice to those urging our country to close the gender gap in STEM. I have written columns in the online editions of Inside Higher Education and The New York Times, and spoke on the subject at a recent meeting of the National Council on Innovation and Entrepreneurship.

As long as there is a gender gap in these fields, there will be an innovation gap. And in today’s global economy, nations that lead do so through fostering scientific and technological innovation.

From 2007–2010, more than 25 percent of Bryn Mawr’s graduates majored in science or math—3.4 times the national rate for women and 2.6 times the overall national rate. Bryn Mawr continues to be in the top 10 among all colleges and universities in the percentage of its 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. Bryn Mawr is second in the nation in the percentage of female students receiving degrees in math, and has 18 times the national average of female students graduating in physics.

How do we do it? Much credit should go to the College’s founders, who from the beginning offered women the chance to get an education that was equal to the finest available to men of the era. But our current success comes from more than just a history of access.

When we ask students what it is about Bryn Mawr that encourages them to pursue STEM majors we consistently hear two things: 1) exposure to role models in our faculty, alumnae, and in other students, and 2) being in a classroom in which they aren’t the lone woman.

Julia Ferraioli graduated in 2007 with a degree in computer science. In high school she had been steered away from some of the higher-level math courses. “Studying computer science at a women’s college meant that I could concentrate on learning instead of being the representative of a gender,” Julia told us via email. “Gender became irrelevant instead of being something that defined me.”

Encouraged by an alumna mentor and by her professors, Julia attended the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, where she made the connection that led to a job at Microsoft after graduation. Julia has since earned a master’s degree in computer science from the University of Rochester and was recently featured as the “Geek of the Week” by the website GeekWire for her work as technical evangelist with DocuSign.

Undergraduate research opportunities and faculty mentoring are also critical. I recently heard from Wendy Butler, the mother of three Bryn Mawr daughters who have majored in chemistry. Annie is a postdoctoral fellow at Michigan State, Kate is a third-year Ph.D. student at the University of Michigan and Ellen is a current junior. Each participated in College-sponsored summer science research in Professor Frank Mallory’s lab, and in Mrs. Butler’s words, “will forever owe a debt to the Mallorys for their tireless support.”

We want to engage all types of students in STEM coursework and we believe they all can succeed. Offering students a variety of entry points into the sciences allows those who arrive at the College with advanced preparation to enroll in higher-level courses that immediately challenge them, while students who have had negative prior experiences in STEM coursework or poor preparation can enjoy courses at various points in the introductory level.

Innovative pedagogy that teaches the applications of science can also attract more students to STEM subjects. For example, in introductory courses in computer science at Bryn Mawr, students apply CS principles to create graphic design projects.

Finally, family-friendly policies encourage faculty to find balance between work and personal life, enabling faculty of both genders to pursue the path to tenure. Ultimately this means more women in the tenured faculty ranks in STEM fields. In chemistry and math, for example, 50 percent of Bryn Mawr’s tenured faculty are women.

At a moment when many question the value of both liberal arts institutions and women’s colleges, Bryn Mawr has built a strong case for the effective power of a women’s college to create opportunity for our graduates in fields of great importance to the nation.

Sincerely,

Jane McAuliffe

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