is it really a leaky pipeline?

For the last week of October, we turn our attention to sexism in STEM, taking a look at the interpersonal and structural issues that face women students and faculty in male-dominated fields. Women are nearly half of all US workers, but only make up 27% of all STEM workers according to a 2021 Census Bureau report. Within these environments, women experience large amounts of stress and negative interactions because of the overwhelming dominance of men in their field. Read more about women’s experiences in STEM, outcomes from these experiences, and how you can better support women in STEM.

P.S. Alyssa Denneler, a Scholars’ Common librarian, let our team know that last week’s recommended book, A Field Guide to Grad School: Uncovering the Hidden Curriculum by Dr. Calarco, is available for free here. Thanks for sharing, Alyssa!

Reflect: Is it really a leaky pipeline?

A common way to describe the persisting attrition of marginalized communities within STEM is the “leaky pipeline.” While this metaphor is useful, it ignores the reality that STEM has been constructed in ways that exclude and/or devalue marginalized communities (Miller, 2015). Furthermore, it privileges certain career outcomes over others - namely, academic or research-oriented STEM careers (Garbee, 2017). Consider alternative metaphors to accurately describe the reality of STEM education, such as the Glass Obstacle Course offered by Welde and Laursen (2011) or Pawley & Hoegh’s (2011) investigation of the pipeline metaphor, for more useful conceptualizations.

Learn: Stereotypes and Outcomes in STEM

Women have a complex relationship with their environment in STEM, with persistent bias affecting numerous mental, emotional, and career-related outcomes. Women in STEM feel they must compete with gendered stereotypes about their performance (Veelen, Derks, & Endedijk, 2019) as well as stereotypes about the culture of STEM (e.g., attributing masculine traits to STEM; (Makarova, Asechlimann, & Herzog, 2019). Because of stereotypes about women and the gendered stereotypes attached to STEM, women are less likely to aspire to STEM careers (Makarova, Asechlimann, & Herzog, 2019). Women STEM faculty are less likely to view their tenure expectations as clear when compared to their male peers and are less likely to be satisfied with their work (Lisnic, Zajicek, & Kerr, 2020). Most STEM chairs have a limited understanding of policies that disproportionately affect women faculty, such as parental leave and tenure clock policies, which means that they are less likely to understand the specific needs of women faculty (Su & Bozeman, 2016). According to the same study, when departments embrace diversity initiatives that highlight these policies, STEM chairs are more likely to champion them when working with higher administration.

Change: Recognizing Social Class

  • Create strong mentorship pathways for women in STEM: Mentorship is a significant method of allyship for women in STEM. If you consider mentorship programs for women faculty or students, consider how gender has influenced the structure and relationships of mentorship (Anderson, 2020); don’t forget to include training surrounding stereotypes and power dynamics within mentorship (Schramm, 2000). Establishing peer mentorship within your department may also lead to better outcomes for women in STEM (Dennehy & Dasgupta, 2017). Programs like CEW&T’s Mentor Collective programs can also create pathways for women in STEM to internalize narratives of persistence through interactions with successful professionals.
  • Consistently include women in STEM representation: Similar to the possibilities of women in STEM professional mentoring programs, consistently highlighting women scholars and researchers in the classroom and beyond is vital as this representation can further enhance students’ motivation (Talley & Ortiz, 2014). When talking about historical narratives of STEM, include inventions by women; when discussing current research, bring in women to talk about their research or cite women in the studies discussed.
  • Affirm women’s place in STEM:Imposter syndrome is a common feeling for women in STEM, as systemic barriers and biases lead them to feel as though there is an intrinsic failing that prevents them from being successful. One of the most powerful ways to support women in STEM is by explicitly celebrating their successes and affirming their daily contributions, both one-on-one and in the larger group. These affirmations should also extend to conversations where only men are present, affirming that women faculty deserve their place no matter who is present. This visibility signals that women are just as integral to STEM as men, particularly when male allies have conversations with other male peers to do better by their women peers (O’Donnell, 2019).