Kathryn Peltier Campbell
Women’s Leadership and Student Retention in Science and Technology
By Kathryn Peltier Campbell, editor, On Campus with Women
As a high school student, I spent half of my junior and senior years at a regional magnet school for math, science, and technology. The school’s director, a biologist and staunch feminist, encouraged all her students to pursue our scientific dreams. In my case, she and her colleagues planted ambitions that hadn’t previously taken root, and when I departed for college, I went with a specific goal in mind: to earn my degree in physics. At eighteen, I considered myself well on my way to improving the statistics for women in science. I completed my degree in physics, graduating with a BA (and a double major in English) in 2003. Yet as I turned the tassel on my mortarboard, I pondered not a future in nanotechnology, but a career of a more humanistic bent. Nearly ten years after catching the physics bug, I am an editor--still using science and technology, particularly the Internet communications technology at the center of this issue of On Campus with Women. But I am not, as I had once hoped, helping to create it.
In a general sense, my story is unremarkable. Many women (indeed, many students of both genders) have ended pursuits in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines for careers that seem (and in my case, probably are) more suitable--which is not to imply, as Lawrence Summers infamously did, that women aren’t suited for scientific careers. Regardless of the reasons for my own decision, I represent a statistically significant group. In 1999 (the year I entered college), 37 percent of students taking the SAT I who planned to take advanced college courses in physics were women (College Board 1999). But in 2003, the year I graduated, women earned only 22 percent of bachelor’s degrees in physics (Malcolm 2006). Yet I graduated from college 100 years after Marie Curie earned the Nobel Prize for her studies of radiation, 31 years after Title IX became law, and 20 years after Sally Ride (who, like me, double majored in English and physics) made her first space flight. What is remarkable about my story, then, is not that I left the discipline--but that so many twenty-first-century women do the same.
Just as my story is fairly representative of the trajectory for women in physics, the story of women in physics is relatively standard STEM-discipline fare. While women earned 49.2 percent of all STEM bachelor’s degrees awarded in 2004 (in part due to their high rates of participation in biological and agricultural sciences, where women earned 60 percent of bachelor’s degrees, and psychology, where they earned 78 percent) (Babco 2006), their participation in individual fields is often much lower. In 2004, women earned only 20.5 percent of degrees in engineering and 25.1 percent of degrees in computer sciences (Babco 2006). For women of color, the statistics are particularly bleak: U.S. resident women of color earned only 7 percent of bachelor’s degrees in engineering conferred in 2004-2005, and only 10 percent of bachelor’s degrees in computer and information sciences (Department of Education 2006). Whether these women are “opting out” or simply never “opting in,” the results are the same: low representation of women, particularly women of color, in certain scientific fields.
This trend, of course, can be self-perpetuating: without women in science leading the way, women make their way out of science. Countless writers on this subject have observed that mentorship is a crucial link in women’s careers--and a link that is often broken by a lack of available mentors. To wit: in the fall of 2003, women held only 8.5 percent of full-time faculty and instructional positions in engineering at degree-granting institutions, with 3.2 percent of all positions occupied by women of color (Department of Education 2006). In physical sciences, women held 17.2 percent of these positions (with women of color occupying 4.4 percent); in computer sciences, women held 30.6 percent, with women of color occupying a mere 5.6 percent (Department of Education 2006). There is little cause to wonder if women undergraduates, particularly women of color, look around and think, “Where do I fit in here?”
So how can we break the cycle? Luckily, successful mentorship isn’t limited to intracultural exchange--indeed, my mentors weren’t always female. Nevertheless, a true culture of inclusion requires active cultivation. Mentoring relationships and alliances take effort and dedication, including outreach that transcends the requirements of good teaching. In her OCWW article “Building Alliances Among Women of Color and White Women,” Kathleen Wong (Lau) pointed out that being a friend is not equivalent to being an ally; likewise, being a good teacher is not the same as being a transformative leader. My college professors were brilliant researchers and dedicated educators, and they encouraged me to continue my studies of physics. Still, I can’t help but wonder if my choices might have been different if I’d had the same kind of explicitly feminist mentorship at the college level that had guided me through high school.
Campus Women Lead (CWL) is working to improve leadership opportunities for women, both in the sciences and in higher education at large. As a network of multicultural, multi-disciplinary women, CWL seeks innovative ways to improve climates for all women in higher education. Through online resources and on-site workshops, CWL is forging the kinds of alliances that support women in their career paths, whatever their personal choices. In addition to my role as editor of On Campus with Women, I provide administrative support for Campus Women Lead--a role that relies heavily on the Internet for communication and connection. In this capacity, I like to think of myself as using Internet technology in support of women’s opportunities to create that technology. For more information about CWL, visit our Web site or contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Babco, Eleanor, and Richard Ellis. Four Decades of STEM Degrees, 1966-2004: “The Devil is in the Details.” STEM Workforce Data Project 6. Washington, DC: Commission on Professionals in Science and Technology, 2006. www.cpst.org/STEM/STEM6_Report.pdf (accessed September 26, 2007).
The College Board. “1999 College Plans.” 1999 College-Bound Seniors, National Report. www.collegeboard.com/about/news_info/cbsenior/yr1999/NAT/natadv99.html (accessed September 26, 2007).
Malcolm, Shirley M., “Diversity in physics.” Physics Today, June 2006, www.physicstoday.org/vol-59/iss-6/p44.html (accessed September 26, 2007).
U.S. Department of Education. “Table 237.” Digest of Education Statistics. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics, 2006. nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d06/tables/dt06_237.asp (accessed September 26, 2007).
----. “Table 238.” Digest of Education Statistics. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics, 2006. nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d06/tables/dt06_238.asp (accessed September 26, 2007).
----. “Table 268.” Digest of Education Statistics. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics, 2006. nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d06/tables/dt06_268.asp (accessed September 26, 2007).
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For more information, contact Kathryn Peltier Campbell at email@example.com.