How to Get Girls to Choose, and Stick With, STEM Careers: A Future Tense Event Recap

When Ashley Gavin wants to convince girls to start computer science or coding careers, she shows them her high-school report card. Biology: F. Math: straight Ds.

An MIT computer science major who now writes the curriculum for the non-profit Girls Who Code, Gavin never even took calculus. But after a high-school teacher pushed her to take a computer science class, she was hooked.

For hundreds of young women today, Maria Klawe is that teacher. As president of Harvey Mudd College, Klawe’s formula to convert undergraduate women into computer scientists is simple: show them that it’s fun (and lucrative, and flexible), strip away the intimidation factor (by gently telling know-it-all, geeky boys in class to pipe down), and help them see that they’re smart enough to do it.

It’s worked. When Klawe arrived in 2006, computer science majors were about 10 percent female. Now, they’re 40 percent female—and the student body of the science and engineering school is roughly 50-50.

So, looks like we’ve found a new winning approach to narrow the cavernous STEM industry gender gap: Repeat Klawe’s tactics around the world, handout Gavin’s report cards, and more women will stream through the pipeline. We’ll have parity in no time—right?

Not exactly. At a New America/Future Tense event on March 27, Gavin, Klawe, and other leaders in the STEM community took on the gender gap, asking not only “How do we get more girls interested in STEM careers?” but also “How do we keep women in STEM careers?” Because it’s not a pipeline problem—it’s a leaky pipeline problem, the panelists stressed.

Women are marginalized little by little at “at every step of the way,” along a STEM career path, explained Carol Greider, the 2009 winner of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, and a professor and director of the Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics at John Hopkins University School of Medicine. “There are lots of different layers”—the post-doc level, the assistant professor level—for women to leak out.

Sometimes, institutions produce the pipeline’s leaks ­(we’ll get to those in a bit). But today, some of the most pernicious and puzzling leaks are the ones created by women themselves.

Successful women often have a crippling delusion that they’re incompetent failures and any accomplishment is a fluke. Klawe diagnosed herself with Imposter Syndrome long ago—and has organized overflowing panels for women around the country to discuss its effects.  

“Women have very high standards for themselves and can be daunted by the fact that grades in the STEM field are not [easy As], “ suggested Liza Mundy, the director of New America’s Breadwinning and Caregiving Program. Could this perfectionism, she wondered, be inducing a kind of psychological drift from STEM careers?

“It’s a confidence level thing,” answered Nancy Hopkins, a professor of molecular biology at MIT. “Its’ not so much [women] aren’t doing well, it’s that they don’t think they are doing well.”

Another problem is the fear of validating a negative stereotype associated with your group, explained Hannah Valantine, a senior associate dean at Stanford who studied the effects of so-called “stereotype threat” on campus. For women, the stereotype could be that they’re not as good at math and science as men. This may make them feel more anxious, and more likely to leave the institution or field when they’re faced with a roadblock, she said.  

But long before women were questioning their ability to handle a STEM career, the gatekeepers of those professions played the role of the doubter.

Back in the mid-1990s, Hopkins recalled, “you didn’t say ‘baby’ on campus. “People didn’t think you could be a great scientist and a mother,” she said.

In the late ’90s, Hopkins “put babies on the table” at MIT. She spearheaded a study into gender biases and inequalities. It was released in 1999 and prompted the president to take on the issue of stigmatic family policies. Today, she said, you can see faculty with babies on campus. There’s even a new childcare center on campus for post-docs and others, mentioned Edmund Bertschinger, the Institute Community and Equity Officer at MIT and a physics professor.

Stanford, too, has revamped its work-life policies after realizing that faculty, afraid of looking cavalier about their careers, weren’t taking flexible time off, said Valantine. One solution was to create banking system that allows workers to get credit for extra work in the office—serving on committees, for example. These credits—which can be exchanged for house cleaning or meal deliveries, for example, help “buy back their time.”

Yet some inequalities remain: Today, women are barely represented on scientific advisory boards, and on boards of lucrative private corporations.

But parity in STEM isn’t just about women—it’s about coming up with better ideas, and better solutions for everyone, suggested Klawe, who is one of two women on Microsoft’s Board of Directors. “ Every single problem that faces society today, whether we’re talking about healthcare, poverty or education, is going to involve computing tech as part of the solution,” she said. “If the only people working on those problems are white and Asian males, I’m sorry, but we don’t get the kinds of solutions our world needs.”

To watch the full event, visit the New America Foundation website.