According to a 2012 White House report, the United States is on track to face a huge deficit of qualified STEM workers by the 2020s. One of the ways to mitigate that deficit is encouraging a traditionally underrepresented group—women—to pursue careers in STEM fields. Given the studies on gender biases that face women pursuing those careers, however, it may be difficult motivating students toward goals where they will face additional challenges. Mentoring college students is particularly important when recruiting women into STEM fields and majors, and providing adequate opportunities to explore (and make mistakes) is key to encouraging women into these areas.

The STEM deficit

“Today, the majority of college students are women,” wrote Kevin Ryan in Those Who Can, Teach, 14e. “Girls have caught up with boys in terms of mathematics and science achievement. Yet, still fewer women than men tend to choose jobs in engineering and the sciences.” (Ryan, 82) In fact, women represent only 24% of the workforce in STEM fields.

While the reasons for this gap are not fully known, it remains true that STEM professors are more likely to find a man qualified over a woman, even with identical resumes, according to a 2014 study by Corinne Moss-Racusin. According to an article on the project by Alexander W. Watts, “Why does John get the STEM job rather than Jennifer?” published in Stanford University’s Gender News, “Despite having the exact same qualifications and experience as John, Jennifer was perceived as significantly less competent. … Because they perceived the female candidate as less competent, the scientists in the study were less willing to mentor Jennifer or to hire her as a lab manager. They also recommended paying her a lower salary. Jennifer was offered, on average, $4,000 per year (13%) less than John.”

To help mitigate this ongoing institutional prejudice, Moss-Racusin created a diversity course for scientists. Participants took a gender and diversity survey before and after the course, and Moss-Racusin’s results showed that scientists approached the evidence in the course in the spirit of science: observing the data and changing their minds and attitudes based on the findings. Research-based diversity courses like Moss-Racusin’s for the faculty of STEM departments can help mitigate unconscious biases that may be lurking—and will show female college students that the STEM faculty are serious about wanting women in their programs.

Tips on motivation

There are a few key ideas that will help women college students stay motivated in STEM majors:

  • Show the value of making mistakes. Women tend to feel more pressure to be perfect than men, and are more likely to drop courses in which they get B grades, according to recent studies. The sciences grade an average of 0.4 points lower on a 4.0 scale. By emphasizing the value of making mistakes, teachers may help students overcome B-phobia.
  • Offer evidence that women in STEM fields earn on average 33% more than women who work in non-STEM fields. (Ryan, 82) That long-term goal may help in motivating students.
  • Host a conference, symposium, or workshop. Many of these events have helped women show that they are valued by their institutions and in their fields.
  • Assure women students that they matter. In her article for the Huffington Post, educator Angela Maiers declared “You Matter: The Two Most Important Words to Motivate Women in STEM.”

Providing mentoring early and often demonstrates your investment in female STEM students.

How have you focused on motivating students as women in STEM fields? Engage with us in the comments.