In the state of Colorado, there are just over two million women, making up 53% of the enrolled undergraduate population and 50% of the workforce. However, women account for only 33% of those graduating with degrees in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) and hold only 26% of STEM jobs in the state. Colorado is not unique – this disparity in STEM education and employment is a nation-wide trend. This disparity begins early, with difference in male and female student interest in STEM showing up as early as middle school, by some estimates, and female students being more likely to self-describe themselves as “bad at math” as early as second grade. These differences in encouragement and interest have broad-reaching, profound, and lifelong implications for women’s economic security, career advancement, and workforce readiness compared to their male counterparts.
It is up to each and every one of us to change this reality. My name is Marian Hamilton, and I hold a PhD in Biological Anthropology and am an Assistant Professor at the University of Northern Colorado (UNCO). As a participant in the Union of Concerned Scientist’s (UCS) Science Network Mentor Program, I had the pleasure of learning the basics of advocacy and community organizing from some of the nation’s most passionate, creative, and qualified scientists over the past 10 months. Armed with these tools, I am forming a Women in STEM group for interested undergraduate students at UNCO with three major objectives: first, to build a community that encourages, supports, and empowers women, particularly from minority or underrepresented groups, to choose majors and careers in STEM fields; second, to facilitate mentor partnerships at the K-12, college, and professional level; and third, to advocate for policies that will improve STEM education across Colorado and the nation, such as universal pre-K. Today, I want to share with you some of the key lessons I’ll be taking with me into this project:
Lesson 1: It starts early
Girls begin losing interest in STEM – or being told that they are “not good at” STEM fields – tragically early. For example, male high school students are more likely to enroll in engineering and computer science classes than their female classmates, and more likely to enroll in AP computer science classes, according to the National Girls Collaborative Project. The gap between white and non-white students in such high school classes is even starker: black and Latinx students were significantly less likely to enroll in advanced science courses than their white classmates.
To change the societal biases that drive such disparities, we must start young, with universal access to pre-K programs that include a STEM component. Ballot measures like Initiative 93 in Colorado, on the ballot in November, would support all-day Kindergarten; withdrawn measures such as Initiative 98 would have provided full day pre-K to Colorado citizens and need to be revisited in upcoming election cycles. This Women in STEM group will support and advocate for such measures to appear on future ballots because fully funding early childhood education helps all students achieve in future STEM classes. Beyond this, such measures also help to close the achievement gap between wealthy and non-wealthy students, such that one’s readiness for the K-12 classroom – and the STEM classes therein – is not dependent on that child’s zip code.
Lesson 2: It takes a village
Changing a system is not something that happens in a vacuum. In fact, research suggests that one of the most effective ways to keep girls in STEM is through mentorship, such as bringing in current college students as mentors to K-12 classrooms. We will implement such a program through the Women in Science group, partnering with public schools across northern Colorado.
As part of the Science Network Mentor Program, we learned about the importance of ‘democratizing’ science, and employing our skill sets as scientists to be tools for the community to employ, rather than trying to engineer solutions from the outside. For us, this means not assuming that this gap in STEM enrollment originates from the same place for all schools, or even all individuals. We need to begin conversations with teachers, with students, and with families about what opportunities they crave, what barriers they face, and what skills and tools would be the most useful. Furthermore, this work is necessarily intersectional; building gender diversity in STEM is only one of the facets by which we must work to diversify our STEM workforce. The Women in STEM group will collaborate closely with other cultural centers across campus, ensuring that we are diverse across all identities.
Lesson 3: We are all in this together
Study after study demonstrates that one of the most effective, efficient, and powerful ways to change perspectives and encourage diversity in STEM is through mentorship. Women in engineering paired with a female mentor, for example, experienced more of a sense of belonging, motivation, and confidence in their work, as well as greater aspiration to remain in the field. Through this Women in STEM club at UNCO, we will work to tie mentors and mentees together through all levels of education, putting college students with high school and middle school students and bringing in professionals in STEM fields to mentor the college students in turn.
Beyond this, we must work to change the entire ecosystem within which women in STEM fields work. For example, we will strongly advocate for family-friendly policies at the state and local level, including paid family leave. At the local level, we will lobby for the maintenance and expansion of university policies such as sabbaticals which facilitate continued engagement with STEM research, particularly for women and minority faculty who historically take on disproportionate service and teaching loads during typical semesters. Through this three-pronged approach of building community, facilitating mentorship, and advocating for education- and research-friendly policies at all levels of government, it is my truest hope and expectation that we can make the STEM workforce in Colorado a reflection of the powerful diversity of people that call this state home.