U research highlights how more women in STEM changes fields

Brian Edwards

A University of Minnesota study expected to begin releasing results within the next year is exploring how women are influencing the operations of organizations within traditionally male-dominated fields like math and science.
 
Researchers from the Humphrey School of Public Affairs are working on a study examining the effects of the growing number of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics leadership positions. This trend is affecting opportunities in STEM fields and how organizations in those topic areas approach research questions.
 
The researchers started by examining 2.8 million employment records from seven different federal agencies to understand their gender makeup, said Debra Fitzpatrick, director of the University’s Center on Women and Public Policy and one of the study’s leads. 
 
This is an important step, Fitzpatrick said, because the dynamics of gender makeup in agencies like these can be complex.
 
“Some organizations might be 50 percent women and 50 percent men, but 100 percent of the low-wage clerical jobs [might be] held by women, and 100 percent of the prestigious, upper-level jobs [might be] held by men,” Fitzpatrick said.
 
Fitzpatrick’s team examined the gender makeup of different organizations from the Clinton and Bush administrations. She recently received approval to examine data from President Obama’s administration, and she said she plans to publish multiple studies based on this data over the next few years.
 
The researchers conducted focus groups and individual interviews with former members of the federal agencies to understand the attitudes and culture within each organization, Fitzpatrick said.
 
The data the researchers collected showed the organizations that dealt with more physical sciences tended to be male-dominated, she said, while health sciences were more evenly split.
 
In the male-dominated agencies, many men thought women couldn’t perform as well as men in leadership roles, Fitzpatrick said.
 
The study highlights the advantages of having women in STEM fields by presenting data and stories about how women are advancing the organizations, she said.
 
Other studies have found that women in the agencies approach research questions differently than men, even if they come to the same conclusions, Fitzpatrick said.
 
The White House reports that women make 77 cents for every dollar a man earns. Though Fitzpatrick said that these types of statistics are important, they aren’t particularly helpful for some questions.
 
“Most research uses data from across organizations,” she said. “That data compares all full-time earners, but this new data will allow us to look at individual experiences of men and women with the same job.”
 
Fitzpatrick said the goals of the study are to break many of the traditional gender stereotypes still lingering in many science organizations.
 
“Ultimately, we hope that this information will help change [the groups] we worked with to be more gender equitable,” she said.
 
More STEM women at the University
 
Anu Ramaswami, chair of the Center for Science, Technology and Environmental Policy at the Humphrey School, said she has personally seen an increase in women in interdisciplinary STEM-related work, which tends to be a mix of science- and community-based projects, for example, rather than strictly engineering.
 
“These are more sort of the human and social application of science and technology,” she said.
 
Dorothy Cheng, the College of Science and Engineering’s scholarship coordinator, said the University has seen an increasing number of female students in STEM majors.
 
She said the Student Chapter of the Association for Women in Mathematics, a student organization created to offer a community for women in STEM fields, was founded due to an increase in women in the college.
 
Megan Rubbelke, founder of the group and a recent University graduate, said some of her classes had just two or three women, and the math department needed a group offering women the chance to meet and network.
 
She said other women in her classes were drawn to the group because of its sense of community. That sense of community is vital to ensuring women remain in STEM, she said.
 
“If you want to be a leader, you need to have a sense of community,” she said. “If it is just you on your own, then what good is that?”