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

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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.

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