Professor studies lack of women in science fields
Published: Monday, October 28, 2013
Updated: Monday, October 28, 2013 22:10
With nearly $800,000 at his disposal, psychology professor Chad Forbes is seeking to determine what causes women who are pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering and math fields to change their minds and start anew.
Forbes said he was presented with a grant of $791,000 from the National Science Foundation, which will allow him to further explore his research question.
“I’ve always been kind of interested in basic issues of equality,” Forbes said. “And when I was in grad school, I started working on these ideas that were kind of more global.”
Now, Forbes said he is interested in exploring the issue of the lack of women in STEM fields because of the prominence of the issue.
“I got particularly interested in women in STEM because now it’s still a very prevalent problem, but it’s getting more attention, which is obviously a good thing,” Forbes said.
One reason that could be contributing to women leaving jobs or majors in STEM fields is they encounter stereotype threat, Forbes said. Stereotype threat, a theory that was first proposed around 1995, states any group that has a negative stereotype associated with it and is put in a situation that primes the stereotype ultimately triggers a situational stressor or pressure, he said.
“They get motivated, on some level, to disconfirm the stereotype, but they ironically, inadvertently confirm the stereotypes by their performance,” he said.
Forbes said in this case, the stereotype at the forefront of the issue is that women are perceived as weaker in fields like science, math, technology and engineering when compared to their male counterparts.
Noting there were four areas of study that have been mapped out, Forbes said the research moving forward was going to be extensive.
Among the key pieces of information Forbes said he aims to collect is brainwave data and genetic information, which he hopes will help answer questions regarding how information is remembered in stereotype-threatening situations versus non-stereotype threatening situations.
For his third and fourth studies, Forbes said he hopes to track women enrolled in STEM majors when they first enter college and analyze them over the course of a year.
The third study will attempt to determine if the brainwave date and genetic information can predict which students will stay or leave the field, Forbes said. In the fourth study, he aims to implement a training procedure to prevent stereotype threat effects and memory effects, as well as encourage retention of students.
“At the undergraduate level, more than half our majors are female,” said John Pelesko, professor and chair of the department of mathematical sciences, speaking of the math department. “And then you go to the graduate level and it drops to something like 35 percent.”
Pelesko said one must look at the different degree programs within the math department at the university to grasp a more complete understanding of where women choose to enroll.
While many of the department’s degree programs have equal enrollment between males and females, the math education degree is about 80 percent female, Pelesko said.
Pelesko said over a four-year period between 2008 and 2012, there has been an increase in the male-to-female ratio in the math department of about .4 percent, from 0.8 to 1.2.
“That’s a somewhat significant shift over that four-year period,” Pelesko said.
A potential cause of the increase could be due to an influx of math economics majors, Pelesko said.
Gender disparity also occurs in engineering, where there tend to be more girls in environmental and civil engineering classes, said Kati McLaughlin, junior chemical engineering major and member of engineering and technical science sorority Alpha Omega Epsilon. In electrical engineering, girls account for 15 to 20 percent of the class, she said.
“It’s difficult because we’re a minority,” McLaughlin said. “It’s hard to be one of the few girls,”
McLaughlin said there are fewer females in upper-level engineering classes than in her freshman-year classes.
“You look at the number that finish with a doctoral degree, and it drops a little bit more,” Pelesko said. “And you look at the percentage of faculty that are female, and it drops a little bit more.”
Women tend to leave STEM fields at each level at much higher rates than men in a phenomenon known as “the leak in the pipeline,” Forbes said.
Seeing fewer women in the field is discouraging, McLaughlin said. For this reason, women tend to lean on each for support. Having role models in the field to look up to is encouraging, she said.
“There’s plenty of girls cut out for it,” McLaughlin said. “I don’t think any differently than the men.”
Raina Parikh contributed to the reporting of this article.