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A handbook for guerrilla warfare against inequality

A United States report describes successful initiatives to increase the contribution of women in scientific careers

Patricia Brandstatter

The United States National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine have released a kind of handbook of best practices to combat the low ratio of women in certain scientific careers. The 224-page document focuses on STEMM fields—science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medicine—and is the result of the efforts of two expert committees, led from 1998 to 2004 by microbiologist Rita Colwell, the first woman to head the National Science Foundation (NSF), a basic research funding agency. The recommendations included in the report, aimed at universities, agencies, and governments, are backed by successful examples of teaching and research institutions that have managed to draw and retain more women in scientific careers and by hundreds of studies testing the effectiveness of strategies against gender imbalances. Colwell believes there is still much to be done, but there are also reasons to be optimistic about the future. “For this, it is critical that we all consider the lessons learned from academic research and the success stories,” she stated upon the release of the report.

A highlight among the experiments presented is that of Harvey Mudd College, a science and engineering post-secondary institution that has been operating for 65 years in the city of Claremont, California, and has about 900 undergraduate students. Among the students who obtained a computer science degree in 2018, more than 50% were women—compared to a national average of less than 20%. These results are attributed to an innovative approach used with freshman students. In the introductory courses, a gap would form between two types of students: on one side, a mostly male group with significant programming experience; on the other, a mostly female group, without much previous experience in the field. The solution was separating these groups and offering a program tailored to students with less programming experience, where they could acquire basic knowledge in a friendlier environment. “In order to encourage a student in an introductory course, you cannot place them with classmates who are much more experienced and who have nothing in common with them,” explained computer scientist Maria Klawe, president of Harvey Mudd College since 2006, to Inc. magazine.

Another case with good results is that of Jackson State University, in Mississippi, which managed to increase the number of female students that obtained a degree in physics—many of whom are black—thanks to a program sponsored by the NSF that organized summer courses exclusively for women and provided mentors to support female students. The approach by the University of Michigan included ensuring greater diversity in their human resources recruitment, achieved by a 2002 program that increased the number of female researchers hired. Between 2001 and 2002, 14% of total hires in the fields of science and engineering were women. Between 2003 and 2006, that number reached 34%. The initiative created rules and recommendations for hiring committees, including training programs to prevent bias and prejudice. It also proposed strategies to attract more candidates from underrepresented groups, such as women and racial minorities, by promoting any job openings to educational institutions and professional organizations that support these groups.

The report mentions an extensive list of scientific papers on the effectiveness of interventions in the educational environment for attracting and retaining female students in STEMM fields. The document states that these strategies may also be useful to attract underrepresented male groups, such as ethnic minorities or first-generation university students. One of the most effective efforts is the use of so-called “active learning” methodologies, in which, instead of lectures, students are encouraged to build knowledge through group discussions and exercises. At the end of each session, the professor leads the whole class through the process of solving the issue in question. A 2018 study by computer scientist Celine Latulipe, from the University of North Carolina, in the city of Charlotte, analyzed the performance of 698 freshmen after taking an introductory computer science course. One group took classes in a traditional format, with lectures and laboratory activities, while another experienced active learning. In the active learning group, women—including those from racial minorities—were less likely to give up computer science, compared to those who took the traditional course. The proper training of professors and facilitator students is critical for the strategy to be successful: student engagement is highest when they trust their instructor. “In addition to the pedagogical benefits of active learning, working on a task as a group helps promote social connections with other students, engagement, and a sense of belonging to the STEMM environment,” states the report.

National Academies experts have found no evidence to support the idea that women are underrepresented in certain careers because they lack some sort of innate strength to pursue them. Rather, they observed several social behaviors and biases that influence women’s educational trajectory and career. The document also states that, in fields such as physics, engineering, and computer science, the gender imbalance is significant from the start of higher education. In biology, medicine, and chemistry, there is less of an imbalance, but there is still a glass ceiling when it comes to leadership positions in universities. The situation in medicine sums up the problem: women made up 18% of undergraduate students in the United States in 1973; today, they represent over 50%. But in 2018, women still made up only 18% of hospital administrators and 16% of department heads in United States medical schools. The field of mathematics is peculiar, with an imbalance that increases as one’s academic career progresses. Women make up 40% of undergraduate students, but that number dips in graduate school, and women are a minority when it comes to university professors.

Patricia Brandstatter

Another strategy highlighted in the report is fighting the persistent misconception that certain careers are only for those who have an innate talent for mathematics or logical reasoning. A 2007 experiment led by Columbia University psychologist Lisa Blackwell assessed the performance of high school students who took part in workshops on brain plasticity and its ability to expand intelligence. These students were able to improve their math grades, compared to a control group that did not take part in the workshops. According to the authors, the intervention was effective because it encouraged students to value learning and hard work and to respond more positively to challenges.

The gender ratio in classes or study groups also plays an important role in encouraging women in STEMM careers. Several studies mentioned in the report corroborate the idea that girls perform worse in a predominantly male environment than in more balanced classes. But one of the most interesting conclusions concerns the importance of female role models in retaining girls in STEMM programs. There are strong motivational effects when students encounter women scientist role models in their field, reinforcing their interest in their careers and helping destroy stereotypes about male superiority. The report uses an example of this so-called “Scully effect,” after a 2018 study by the Geena Davis Center on Gender in the media suggested that female high school students who were fans of the television series The X-Files were more likely to express an interest in STEMM careers than those who were not. One of the explanations offered is that the audience identifies with the protagonist Dana Scully, played by actress Gillian Anderson, an FBI agent trained in forensic pathology.

In Brazil, some initiatives to fight gender imbalance in scientific careers coincide with examples cited in the United States report. Last year, the Institute for Pure and Applied Mathematics (IMPA) organized a mathematics olympiad exclusively for female participants. The goal was to create a friendlier environment and networking opportunities for female students who like math, as they tend to feel uncomfortable with the male-skewed gender ratio of these types of competitions (see Pesquisa FAPESP issue no. 282). When it comes to other strategies, however, such as hiring women for academic positions, the situation in Brazil is quite different. “Starting a career as a researcher with Brazilian public universities is done through competitions, which helps prevent bias, and there is job stability from the start. This ensures a more comfortable position for women than in the United States, where stability is only achieved after a few years in the career and researchers face a probationary period right when women tend to become mothers, placing them at a disadvantage compared to men,” claims Ana Maria Fonseca de Almeida, from the UNICAMP College of Education, who studies the role of educational institutions in producing and perpetuating inequality.

She draws attention to another distinction between efforts against gender imbalance in academia in the United States and in Brazil. “Initiatives in the United States, as in other countries, are driven by laws that defend gender equality in universities in the country, while in Brazil they are driven solely by the efforts of social groups,” she explains. Fonseca is referring to a 1972 United States federal law known as Title IX, according to which educational institutions must provide equal opportunities for men and women. This law’s greatest impact was in sports, as universities had to offer the same number of scholarships to male and female athletes. This law is thought to have significantly encouraged the contribution of women in US sports, which would explain why, in the last two Olympics, they surpassed male athletes in gold medals earned. Only in recent years, however, has the law been applied to efforts related to gender imbalance in some careers and to fight sexual harassment in the academic arena (see Pesquisa FAPESP issue nº 291). “North American universities invest in the initiatives described in the reports because they need to be accountable regarding their equality efforts or risk losing federal funding,” says Fonseca.

Without the support of institutions, some initiatives in Brazil achieve less impressive results. About 10 years ago, a Brazilian branch of the group Women in Engineering (WIE) was established at the UNICAMP School of Electrical and Computer Engineering (FEEC), linked to the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE), a renowned worldwide association of technology professionals. The group was designed to support female electrical engineering students at the university, who made up only 7% of undergraduate students and 15% of graduate students at the time. To this day, it promotes discussion forums and lectures with successful female engineers, who are invited to show the female students their career trajectories and the obstacles they faced. For computer scientist Vanessa Testoni, who helped found the group as a PhD student at FEEC, the last 10 years have seen some progress around the issue of female representation. “This is no longer considered a novel issue and institutions are interested in solving it,” she says. In practice, however, there have been no significant changes yet. “The percentage of female undergraduate students in the electrical engineering program at UNICAMP has increased a little, but it is still less than 10%,” she shares. Testoni, who leads a research group at Samsung Research Institute Brazil, in Campinas, also believes there are few policies for attracting and retaining women in technology companies. “While in many careers women are already fighting to reach leadership positions, in computer science we are still fighting to increase general numbers of women, which remain very low.”