SAGE Musings: Supporting Women in STEM

Carol Ormand, SERC, Carleton College
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published Mar 1, 2018 9:53am

Even as more women are attending college than men, we earn far fewer degrees in science than men (NSF, 2017) and are underemployed in sciences and engineering relative to men (e.g., Sidder, 2017). What can we do to attract more women into the geosciences and to help them to thrive in our field? Research supports a number of strategies for improving the representation of women in STEM, including showing students female role models, developing a mentoring program, engaging female students in research, and other strategies I've written about in previous SAGE Musings.

Show students female geoscientists

Female students are more persistent and more successful in STEM fields when they have female role models: "[W]omen who are exposed to successful females in STEM fields are more likely to do well in STEM classes, feel a greater sense of belonging among their STEM classmates and colleagues, and are more likely to have pro-science career aspirations. When women see other women in science, math, technology, and medical fields, they are less likely to associate these fields with masculinity and more likely to have confidence in their own skills" (Frost, 2017, and references cited therein).

Mentor female students

Because mentoring is believed to be an important mechanism for supporting women in STEM, it is often implemented in combination with other strategies (Hernandez et al., 2017). This makes it challenging to measure the effectiveness of mentoring as a strategy. However, Hernandez et al. (2017), studied the effects of mentoring on first- and second-year female students in STEM, and found that "Mentoring support from a faculty member benefited early-undergraduate women by strengthening their scientific identity and their interest in earth and environmental science career pathways. Further, support from a faculty mentor had a positive indirect impact on women's scientific persistence intentions, through strengthened scientific identity development." For the purposes of this study, mentoring was defined quite broadly as "guidance, assistance, and encouragement on professional and academic issues.... beyond selecting classes or meeting academic requirements" (Hernandez et al., 2017). Likewise, the Colorado School of Mines cites their career mentoring - for both men and women - as one of the reasons their geophysics and engineering programs have higher than average female enrollments and persistence (Fusch, 2018).

Anticipate and alleviate concerns

Take a close look at the requirements for your courses. Do any of them put any of your students into situations that might make them feel unsafe, or worse, actually be unsafe? What about uncomfortable? In her first field biology course, Jodie Wiggins was expected to "drive to the middle of nowhere, stay overnight, and sleep in my car, alone" (Wiggins, 2017). She chose to team up with another student in the class, and thus felt safer completing the assignment. However, another student might simply have decided that field biology wasn't for her, and turned to a different field of study. Now a research supervisor, she tells her students explicitly not to do anything that makes them feel unsafe. She also lets them know where they can pee, thus alleviating less perilous, yet still essential, concerns (Wiggins, 2017).

Build a sense of community

Any students who belong to a group that is under-represented may feel isolated. Building an inclusive community can make a difference for them, giving them a sense of belonging. This sense of community and support can help keep women in STEM (Fusch, 2018). In addition, it should go without saying, but it's important to watch for and nip in the bud any harassment, bullying, or other behaviors that undermine your community-building efforts. Making sure that all students know about sexual harassment policies and how to report sexual harassment helps to send a message of zero tolerance for harassment.

Additional strategies from previous SAGE Musings

Previous SAGE Musings posts have highlighted other relevant strategies, as well. For example:


Frost, Jacqui, 2017. The Role of Female Role Models. Available at

Fusch, Daniel, 2018. Enrolling and Supporting Women in STEM: Practical Steps to Take. Available at

Hernandez, P.H, B. Bloodhart, R.T. Barnes, A.S. Adams, S.M. Clinton, I. Pollack, E. Godfrey, M. Burt, E.V. Fischer. 2017. Promoting professional identity, motivation, and persistence: Benefits of an informal mentoring program for female undergraduate students, PLOS ONE, doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0187531. Available at

National Science Foundation, National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics. 2017. Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering: 2017. Special Report NSF 17-310. Arlington, VA. Available at

Sidder, Aaron, 2017. Geosciences make modest gains but still struggle with diversity, Eos, 98, Published on 06 April 2017. Available at

Wiggins, Jodie, 2017. Dispatches from the Field: Femininity and Fieldwork. Available at

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