OPINIONS

On the Margins, Between the Lines: Attrition of women from techie majors

My mother is a structural engineer; my dad is a computer scientist. When I entered Stanford, I was sure I was going to be techie. I didn’t know what I wanted to major in (although science seemed like a good bet), so I started off my freshman year with all of the introductory math and science classes I could take. Now, five years later, I’ve ended up with a degree in…sociology.

 

How did that happen? I wish I could say it was because I discovered this great new field I never knew existed and fell in love with it. Although I have enjoyed my major, the truth is that in many ways I’m a sociology major because I got too fed up with techie classes to major in them.

 

Despite jumping into techie courses with much enthusiasm freshman year, I soon came to realize that the classes themselves were just not that enjoyable. I frequently encountered professors whose English I could not understand and who lacked the ability to command a classroom or explain concepts at a student’s level. I disliked feeling like just a number in a class, the inaccessibility of the professors and most of all, the tests designed to produce an average grade of 40 percent so that everyone feels as though he or she has failed.

 

For me, the kid who adored calculus in high school and who spent a summer taking physics because she was sad she didn’t have time to take it in high school, this was a problem. I love learning and I love going to school, so my college years just seemed too precious to be spent in classes that I didn’t enjoy. I fled from these unsatisfying courses and found a human-centered, student-centered department in which I could actively enjoy my education.

 

In and of itself, this story of how I chose my major holds little significance. However, when looked at in light of national trends, I am one of millions of women who have opted out of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields. This phenomenon is often called the “leaky pipeline” to describe the way that women and non-Asian minorities drop out of these fields at greater rates than white and Asian men at every educational and professional level. The problem is that this attrition is not due to skill or competence; women who drop out of STEM majors earn equivalent grades to men who decide to stay in those majors. This means that STEM fields, often heralded as the sector most important for economic growth in the United States, are losing out on a number of talented women and minorities and the innovations that they may bring to these fields. For Stanford, this is especially troubling because the alumni who bring the most prestige and donate the most money to the school are often techies. By driving women away from techie fields, we are reducing both the future earning power of alumni and publicity for the school.

 

There have been many studies that address the problem of how to keep women in STEM majors in college and a large number of them propose solutions that – had they already been implemented at Stanford – would have made a difference in my educational journey. Many of the solutions suggest altering pedagogical methods in ways that make classes more accessible to women. Group work, female TAs and examples of women and minorities making a difference in their field all help reduce the feeling of tokenism. Interactive classes with hands-on work and an emphasis on the applicability and potential social impacts of the material help to sustain interest and make classes more enjoyable. Personal interaction with professors and re-tooling weeder classes can counter attrition due to low self-confidence. Women often believe that they are doing worse than the average student in STEM classes – a perception that has no correlation to their actual performance. This is especially problematic in weeder courses, which cause disproportionately high numbers of women and minorities to leave the subject despite being equally as good at it as those who don’t leave.

 

So my question is: Stanford, what are you doing to ensure that our STEM majors aren’t just another piece of the leaky pipeline? I know that we have numerous extracurricular groups and programs to support women and minorities, but the classroom experience in techie majors leaves a lot to be desired. With the exception of introductory computer science and product design classes, the majority of techie classes geared toward freshmen and sophomores utilize pedagogy that has been shown to drive away women and minorities. So, Stanford, I challenge you to do your part to stop the pipeline from leaking and revisit undergraduate technical curriculums to improve them for your female and minority students.

 

Any comments? Jamie would love to hear them at jamiesol “at” stanford “dot” edu.

  • genomeenthusiast

    Thank you so much for this article!  I’m Stanford Bio class of ’10 and I had this exact same experience – I started out at Stanford as a physics major and after a year and a half of slogging and feeling lost and unsupported, I turned to the welcoming arms of the bio department and never looked back.  This is a real problem and I really hope Stanford administrators start taking education reform seriously to make women feel comfortable being techies.  Couldn’t agree with you more, Jamie!

  • Andy

    I’m a Mechanical Engineer graduating this year, and while a agree that the techie majors (i.e. STEM) do not hold your hands along the way, I completely disagree with what you and Jamie are suggesting — that a degree program should pamper the student along the way to be enjoyable.  Those of us who stay  with techie fields are the ones who find the knowledge to be interesting and fulfilling in its own right, even if it isn’t spoon-fed to us.

    Techie majors need to instill a sense of independence in students because the real world of techie work is about doing things a right way or a wrong way, with little gray region in between.  Take me, as an ME.  I design a bridge, or a car, or rocket, or a fan in a laptop computer, and it’s up to me to figure out what works and what doesn’t.  I don’t expect anyone to hold my hand in the real world and show me how to do things the right way.  Often, no one has yet discovered “the” right way, or worse yet, there is no single right way, so techies must learn the independence to make a decision.  And I do think that the amount of self-learning in STEM fields strengthens this confidence in one’s own math/science/engineering judgement.

    So…. to address the bigger point of this article, I agree with many of Jamie’s suggestions that would help varying demographics to  not be turned away from STEM fields.  But the major issue lies with society at large and something within those demographics that doesn’t click with STEM, not something within STEM fields that is being implemented poorly.

  • Ian

    Your argumentation regarding the 40-percent grading average is not only exaggerated (it’s usually closer to 70%), but reflects an underlying assumption on your part: that there is something magic about 90% as an acceptable grade.  This is pure social conditioning.  The problem could be conversely solved by all courses designing 50%-average tests.  It sucks at first ,but after a little bit, 55s start looking really good.

    I don’t see the jump from your (fairly racist) comment about Professors with heavy accents to women.  The argumentation in this column is shaky at best and offensive at worst.
    In particular, the logical flow of your case seems to be this:1.  Engineering classes are harder than Sociology classes2.  Women have low self-confidence relative to the average3.  Therefore, Engineering classes are bad with mean (and, oh no!, foreign) professors.  Rather than address the issue by building confidence in women (or, heaven forbid, curve Sociology classes somewhere below an A), we ought to make engineering classes easier.There’s a reason that Stanford is always one of the top two engineering schools in the country.  It’s because the program is rigorous.  Because Stanford grads really are that much more qualified than other students.  Engineering courses really do have a right and a wrong, and trying to make everyone right to save the feelings of potential majors has real harmful consequences in the real world.Want to help women in STEM?  Stop the dialogue that says “Tech is hard, so women don’t do it.”  That is insulting, and it perpetuates the stereotype that women aren’t up to the challenge of Engineering.I would close with this thought.  Most students in STEM fields are happy with, and confident in their fields.  If you didn’t find STEM courses fulfilling, you probably wouldn’t have been successful in STEM.

  • Charles

    Yawn.  Gag.  Seems like complaint #1 is that STEM courses are rigorous, technical, and objective.  Don’t see why this should necessarily affect women differently from men, or why the Stanford curriculum should be watered down at all. 

    And complaint #2 is that some STEM instructors are foreigners.  Who cares, and again, why should this matter more to women than men?

    Maybe the author should stop whining and start asking why women from Asia (or of Asian descent) and Europe (particularly Eastern Europe) don’t seem to be intimidated by STEM fields — and are doing just fine in these areas.

  • Cynthia

    I am really disappointed in these first few comments from people (men, specifically – Ian, Andy, Charles) who have revealed their own biases rather than responded to the actual article.  The author is not complaining about the rigor or objectivity of STEM classes, nor is she suggesting that women need hand-holding or pampering. What she is asking for is delivery of that same rigorous content in a format that is suitable for the full range of capable and interested students. 
    The “sage on stage” presentation style and the heavy use of graduate students in teaching basic (i.e., critical) concepts is the same format that was used 50+ years ago and could use some updating in general. So while we are at it, shouldn’t we consider the actual current audience for those classes?  Think of your favorite classes and how you were engaged by the topic and professor. For most of us, these were challenging, rigorous and fulfilling classes and we liked them for that, not because we were spoon-fed the content. Why should we accept that STEM classes are stuck in the 1950′s? We have a better sense now of what works, and the audience is different – I would expect better of the Stanford faculty.  Not because we need to “water down” the curriculum but because we need to evolve it to meet the needs of our current students.

  • Claire

    I disagree with many of the comments strongly. First of all, Ian, your accusation that the author is racist or xenophobic because she was frustrated that she could not understand a professor’s heavy accent is demeaning, disrespectful, and unproductive, and Charles, your comment is dismissive and discourteous.  I don’t think the author is remotely bothered by the prospect of a foreign professor, but obviously it is problematic if a teacher is failing to communicate with his or her students due to a language barrier.  I have had a similar experience, and it certainly makes learning an already difficult subject more frustrating and discouraging.  I am a science major, and happy in my field, but I agree that the introductory courses felt, frankly, depressing.  This is NOT to say that they were too difficult, in fact, conceptually, upper level courses are far more challenging.  Stanford’s STEM programs are world-class because of the talented and innovative professors and students.  This does not mean that archaic pedagogy and grading systems cannot be re-designed to the benefit of all.  I believe that there is something profoundly self-congratulatory about taking pride in difficulty for its own sake, which is something I see a lot in these courses.  Being unwelcoming to students is simply rude, and has nothing to do with the difficulty of the material. To think that the only alternative is handholding is ridiculous.  Women, of course, don’t need easier classes, but a class structure that is based off of collaboration instead of pure competition could be equally challenging without being so discouraging.  My appreciation of chemistry was nearly destroyed by introductory chemistry courses, not because I was doing poorly, but because the class was structured to present an extremely limited view of the field that was devoid of context and application.  A point was deducted if a student even a single minute late to lab.  What does that have to do with learning, or chemistry?  In some of these courses, one can constantly hear students asking if something will “be on the test”.  Where is the joy in that?  We should be learning for the sake of learning, and future research, not desperately trying to scrounge a few more points of the midterm.  Why do we have to have “weeder” classes which discourage talented students when there is a shortage of tech-savvy citizens in this country?  Research has shown again and again that collaborative work increases creativity and self-esteem, as well as ingraining knowledge more deeply than just passively listening to a lecture.   Although the structure of these courses seems to especially deter women and non-asians (although certainly not exclusively in my experience), I think serious reform could have positive impact of everyone’s learning experience.   

  • YATM (yet another techie male)

    Acquiring knowledge in the hard sciences and engineering is hard. There is no shortcut to that. One needs to understand the concepts then learn how to reason to solve problems which are different from those taught in class. And that’s the way it has to be because an engineer (or scientist) that works in the real world he/she will have to work on challenges that are likely to be very different from whatever problems were presented during the course. However, what remains with the student after the hard training is the skill of using a set of tools (like a programming language) to solve new issues through reasoning.

  • Kevin Baumgartner

    Hi Jamie,

    Thanks for taking on this topic- as a former Biology major and current medical student, I’ve done a lot of thinking about the delivery of content in introductory STEM courses, and I’m glad to see some more perspectives on the issue. 

    While I agree with your broad point that the pedagogy of introductory science classes is often unnecessarily frustrating and off-putting, I don’t think that you’ve established a causal link between this problem and the disproportionate attrition of women and (non-Asian) minorities from the STEM fields. I haven’t encountered any research indicating that women and non-Asian minorities are more susceptible to the discouraging effects of a badly-run class than white & Asian men. Even if this can be shown to be true, it suggests that other, broader factors are at play (lack of role models, poor networks of support, worse opportunities for scientific learning prior to college, societal expectations, etc.) that are not best addressed at the classroom level.

    Also, a point of clarification:

    “The problem is that this attrition is not due to skill or competence; women who drop out of STEM majors earn equivalent grades to men who decide to stay in those majors.”

    Are the “grades” in STEM classes or in the non-STEM fields that the women enter after leaving STEM? As you note, grading is typically more lenient and flexible in non-STEM fields, so this wouldn’t be a fair comparison. Alternately, are you saying that women & men earn equivalent grades in early STEM courses, but a woman who (for example) gets a C in Chem 31X is more likely to drop out of STEM than a man who also gets a C in Chem 31X? This seems to be what you’re suggesting in a later paragraph. If so, this points once again to interventions that target the confidence of female & minority students, which do not necessarily involve large-scale changes in pedagogy.

    Finally, I would argue that while I agree that many science courses have quite a bit of room for improvement, some of your proposed solutions would be problematic in large introductory classes. Small-group work requires more time and more staff, and is (theoretically) already covered by office hours and sections (although, as I’ve written before, most sections at Stanford are horribly designed and badly run). “Interactive work” is next to impossible in a large lecture class; there are simply too many people who need to take Chem 31 or Bio 42 to allow for small seminar-based learning environments. Finally, while I’m a huge fan of “real-world relevance,” the brute fact of the matter is that introductory classes must focus on teaching the foundations of a subject, without which students cannot progress to higher-level learning that fits neatly with practical applications. Professors can always introduce more real-world examples into lectures, but at some point, we’ve all got to learn about the atomic structure of benze rings, and that involves boring, low-level work that doesn’t lend itself to inspiring or exciting practical applications.

    For my part, I think that the best way to stop students from prematurely dropping out of the STEM fields is to offer targeted early interventions to students who are doing poorly in introductory courses. The STEM fields need to shed their perverse pride in “weeding people out” and start thinking of their students as assets to preserve. Stanford would never let a student just drop off the map; STEM faculty shouldn’t be prepared to let a student just walk out of their department without at least an “exit interview” and an offer of targeted tutoring. Another excellent strategy would be to expose intro students to the real-life process of science/engineering/technology through visits to laboratories, hospital wards, start-ups, tech companies, etc. I think that too many students assume that working in STEM fields will be just like taking a STEM course; the opposite is true. 

  • http://twitter.com/preetharam Preetha Ram

    Jamie
    Your note is compelling and saddening.  As someone who has been teaching introductory chemistry for years (one of your so called weeder classes) I pondered on your thesis.  I can add a datapoint, it is typically the small 4 year colleges like Carleton that send large numbers of undergrads to science PhD programs.  These places are renowned for their warm and supportive, people centered atmosphere.   

    It is indeed a pity if as a community we cannot address this gap in a meaningful manner.  In 1996, Bernice Sanders published a book called the “Chilly Classroom Climate”.  What you are saying is that nothing has really changed.  Except time has passed. And society has lost some wonderful minds, some Marie Curies, some Rosalind Franklins, who knows.

  • http://www.facebook.com/suzanneyada Suzanne Yada

    “And that’s the way it has to be because an engineer (or scientist) that works in the real world he/she will have to work on challenges that are likely to be very different from whatever problems were presented during the course.”

    Why is that the way it has to be?

  • http://www.facebook.com/suzanneyada Suzanne Yada

    I disagree that collaborative work, for example, is hand-holding or pampering. Collaborations are very difficult, in the classroom and in the real world. I also don’t buy into the concept of the real-world engineer or scientist, in his or her own laboratory, alone and solving the problems of the world single-handedly. Please, feel free to correct me if I’m wrong.

    I will agree with you that self-learning is important and encourages confidence in one’s own abilities, but why do classes have to be structured in such an inefficient way that students have no other choice but to self-learn? Certainly there has to be a better way.

  • Mackenzie Rainbow

    You actually did not convey any information here. You didn’t really say anything as far as I can tell. 

    All you seem to say is that hard science is hard. What does that even mean. Can you quantify “hard”? Do you mean harder /than/ something else, such as sociology, or psychology, or … animation?

    You also actually claim that students have to solve very different problems than those in class, and that they have to understand the concepts first.

    I (think I) disagree and I’ll tell you why:

    1st- If you meant that STEM is harder than undefined other things, you are basing this on what, exactly? Math comes naturally to some people that can’t hold an emotional discussion or write and illustrate a children book. All of these are hard, but saying that they are hard is near to meaningless.

    2nd- In my experiance in higher math, and in my study of STEM education, I have seen a deficit in the actual explanation of concepts. The people who thought they were good at math were the ones who were able to memorize and apply formulas without necessarily fully understanding them, or understanding them at all. I used to think I was bad at math because I’m slow, and have a bad memory, and wasn’t being taught the concepts. I eventually figured out how to use a myriad of recourses to teach myself the concepts, and to be able to derive most anything I needed that I did not remember, because I knew what I was doing or trying to do. Being forgetful didn’t need to mean I was bad at math. From tutoring adults, I saw that the people who thought they were bad at math we not being told what anything meant and were just trying to apply whatever they were most recently shown like someone might try to apply a decoding key.  They didn’t realize when they had done things correctly because no one had told them what they were trying to accomplish. They typically had low self esteem, and could sense that there was something that they did not understand, and assumed it was because they were stupid. In contrast those that don’t sense that there is some depth that they do not understand don’t get upset about it and, in my experiance, get better grades for being able to just do it.

    I suggest that is very possible, and more effective, to teach the concepts through hands on exploration, which would involve doing real world work, or at least solving problems that are relevant to what one would use the information for in a non academic setting.

    Please excuse any awkward wording; I am less eloquent at 3 in the morning.

  • Mackenzie Rainbow

    She is not suggesting that they be watered down. You obviously didn’t read this very carefully before responding. I agree that this should not be a woman centric issue. But I do think that she discusses actual problems, one of which is the intentional weeding out of people who can’t learn under certain educational styles (that are unreasonable imo), and another, smaller problem, is that when you can’t understand the words coming out of your professors mouth, it is very hard to learn from them. Thus the people that do well in those classes have to either be good at accents or, more likeley, capable of filling in the gaps in knowledge created by a barrier in spoken language.

    Saying”Yawn. Gag.” is extremely impolite. Maybe YOU should stop whining, and do some research into STEM education to try to answer why some people from some cultures do better than others. Its actually very interesting.

    You don’t seem to have any information to back up your antagonism. 

  • Mackenzie Rainbow

    this.

  • Mackenzie Rainbow

    I would like if your article did not focus on women because I think that excludes all other people who are driven out of the STEM courses. Many people are driven out for learning disabilities or learning differences. Some of those people are women and also experience gender discrimination, but is important to not conflate those issues, as it makes it a more impossible to solve a problem if you define it incorrectly.

    To clarify: you list problems with STEM education that have nothing to do with gender. Sexism in the hard sciences is a valid topic to write about, but only you second to last paragraph was actually talking about women. By claiming that that was what your article was about (it wasn’t, actually. really.) you’ve triggered peoples defensiveness on both sides (also a valid way to spark discussion, but it also sparks ill thought out arguments), rather than uniting people of all genders together to solve all of the different problems. Some people will understandably say “but thats not a woman’s issue, thats everyone, why are women special, what are you talking about?” and jump to “everyone has to deal with these issues and women shouldn’t get special treatment” and will ultimately throw out the baby with the bathwater so to speak; disregarding your article entirely because you’ve made the same mistake I believe many feminists make- excluding men, and incorrectly seeming to simplify a complicated and multifaceted problem to relate almost solely to vagina having people.

  • Grant Anderson ’81

    Until technology professors understand that a “weeder” class that has 30-60% attrition is a failure on THEIR PART and not the students, this will always be a problem.  You take the cream of the crop of applicants, then say “they can’t hack engineering” when the drop your class.  Maybe it’s that they can’t hack classroom teaching that fails to make relevant the subject to the objectives…which is to create, build and explore.

  • Raephraim

    You seem like the perfect person to become a high school math or science teacher who can help young women (and men) find their way in STEM fields. As a former teacher, principal, and deputy superintendent of instruction, I know how important it is to have great teachers in our high school classrooms.  There is such a shortage of math and science teachers!  Take a look at the MAT@USC program.  It is a blended online and site based program that you may find a perfect next step. Scholarships are available for candidates interested preparing to be STEM teachers. Maybe after you finish your undergrad work you might want to help other women find their way in to careers in STEM.

  • Anonymous

    I’m a female graduate student in engineering. As a woman who has been through engineering school, been a TA for a number of undergraduate engineering courses, and seen my fellow female graduate students struggle with the feeling of “not belonging” until they change to non-STEM careers, I totally agree that attrition of women is a significant problem.

    I have mixed feelings about Jamie’s reasoning. First, one issue in engineering that is a turn-off for many students is that the results are often not proportional to the amount of effort put in. You can often spend 3 times the amount of time working on a problem set or in the laboratory that your peers spent, and STILL have an incorrect solution or setup that gives the wrong results. But to be a successful engineer, one HAS to develop the skills to do it independently and correctly almost 100% of the time — and because of this, be graded on being right or wrong. This is just the nature of the subject, and both men and women find it frustrating.

    Jamie’s right, though, when saying that it’s more often the women and minorities that drop out. Part of the reason—which may sound surprising—is that men are often under pressure to be good engineers. There’s a double standard: the attitude towards men studying engineering is along the lines of “you HAVE to be a good engineer, no matter what, and don’t you dare think of changing to something ‘softer’ ” whereas with women the attitude is “you can be an engineer if you want to, but you don’t have to.” And the “do it or else” attitude is sometimes present in Asian families which push for their kids to study engineering (I’ve grown up in a family like that). 

    I think it’s more important to address the confidence issue that Jamie mentioned. A lot of women (including myself) have felt at times that they are lacking in something fundamental that causes them to perform more poorly than men. The best way to change this is through one-on-one discussions with instructors/TAs, as well as seminars targeted at women and minorities to explain the “impostor syndrome.”

    It’s also equally important, I believe, to teach students emotional resilience. Rather than increasing the average scores on exams, I think it is far more important to let them feel challenged rather than demoralized when they see a 40% on their exam. Stanford engineering is well-known for its excellence and technical rigor, and I strongly feel that this should not be changed. However, instructors can provide more encouragement and help build resilience and a “I’m not going to give up” spirit in students.

  • AntiSlice

    Hey, you’re supposed to write what you know, right?  And that looks like what Jamie did.   It’s entirely valid to point out the intersectionality aspects of this, but I’d agree more if in “uniting people of all genders” you didn’t equate being a woman with having a vagina.

  • AntiSlice

    About your grades comment: those women are earning comparable grades in STEM classes before they leave.

    And Stanford can quite easily let a student drop off the map.  When was the last time you heard about a department actually being concerned about a student who wasn’t doing well and considering switching majors?  (Actually, you probably wouldn’t have.  Stanford students don’t talk about academic problems.)

  • bobby232

    I agree!  I’m a male engineer near the end of a PhD in a STEM field.  Even after more than a decade in my field, I feel I don’t belong.  I believe this “not belonging” feeling (which is closely tied to the “impostor syndrome”) is the fire that fuels attrition.

    Many of my female (and some male) friends who’ve stuck with STEM fields have struggled with this feeling.  I can see that they have incredible skills and abilities.

    One problem is, they are surrounded by people (mostly males and a few females) who are more comfortable than them at “BS”ing when presenting, writing papers, or debating with someone, even when they’re not sure what they’re saying.

    Another problem is the confrontational, adversarial nature of academia in STEM fields.  Emphasis is on individual achievement – it’s all about *my* grades, not *our* grades.  PhD students have to “defend” their work, implying that they will be attacked.  Collaborations happen, but are limited due to the emphasis on individual achievement instead of a team building one product.  It is stereotypically “male” behavior to focus on one’s own achievements in competition with others.  Stereotypically, women prefer collaborative solutions, when possible, in favor of individual work.

    The academic world is changing, however, and over time, I hope STEM fields will develop ways to encourage collaborative work in an official, institutional way, and perhaps encourage students to think about the process – such as deciding when to “do it right,” vs. when “BS”ing is actually the right thing to do.

  • ShadrachSmith

    I got my first degree in Sociology too. I did it because I was lazy and Sociology was easy. Are you sure the problem is with the pedagogy. For me the problem was with my priorities. My oldest daughter did the same thing. Neither of us lie about why we did it.

    Some learning curves are steeper than others. That is why some play chess, and others play checkers.