Gender disparities in college classrooms can start in the children’s toy aisle, according to Terry Morreale, the associate director of the National Center for Women and Information Technology (NCWIT) at the University of Colorado Boulder.
The same stereotypes that guide girls to Barbies and boys to Legos can discourage women from pursuing science, technology, engineering and math — otherwise known as STEM fields — said Morreale.
“If you walk down the toy aisles at Target and you look at what toys are targeted to girls and what toys are targeted to boys, the toys that might lead you into activities that are more about computational thinking are targeted to boys,” she said.
The percentage of women in relation to men in CU Boulder’s engineering program has yet to rise past 30 percent since 1991, according to a CU census data report from 2016. According to the report, 1,740 of CU’s engineering students were women compared to 4,851 men.
University officials are utilizing programs like NCWIT to fix this gender gap. Efforts include breaking down gender biased stereotypes and encouraging women to enter STEM fields from a young age.
Cultural norms that lead to biases are often caused by “stereotype threat.” According to Morreale, stereotype threat the pressure individuals feel when they say or do something wrong, since they believe actions will reflect upon their entire group.
Women in STEM fields are more likely to fall victim to stereotype threat because STEM classrooms are dominated by men, she explains.
“I guess it makes me less willing to participate in discussions,” wrote Lucy Horne, a freshman at CU taking classes in the engineering school. “I feel like if I say something wrong it reflects badly on all women instead of me as an individual.”
At CU, classes are dominated by both male students and male faculty. Data shows that only 33 percent of the tenured or tenured track professors are female, with similar gender gap patterns across all instructor levels.
Aside from CU, other universities nationwide have been making attempts to increase gender diversity in their STEM programs. Many colleges, including The Colorado School of Mines, have student branches of the Society of Women Engineers (SWE), which plays a similar role on campus as NCWIT.
According to Debra Lasich, associate vice president for diversity and inclusion at the School of Mines, their branch of SWE already has 810 student members. Their most recent junior to sophomore retention is slightly higher for women than men.
“Our alumnae have gone on to be leaders in their fields, as well as have started their own engineering businesses, held leadership positions in major companies, become doctors and lawyers, and served in leadership positions in professional organizations and boards,” Lasich said.
According to data collected by NCWIT, only 26 states and The District of Columbia consider computer science to be a math or science graduation requirement. NCWIT’s data also shows that boys have more opportunities outside of school to get at least basic computing skills than girls.
NCWIT and SWE are nationwide organizations that promote gender diversity in STEM. In that sense, Morealle said that future efforts will include female college students reaching out to younger girls.
Younger girls are more likely to feel a connection to college-age girls, Morealle said. Female students in the engineering school are encouraged by NCWIT to reach out to girls in middle and high schools and introduce them to computing skills.
The programs help women realize that stereotypes are not legitimate reasons for them to factor out STEM fields. Despite her career path being looked down upon, Horne pushed past gender stereotypes in order to pursue her dreams.
“People hear of someone in a STEM profession and they always say “he,” Horne wrote. “And I mean when I first started as [an] astrophysics [major], I told my extended family and my aunt asked my dad if he thought I was really going to do it, and he shook his head.”
Contact CU Independent Arts Writer Sam Danshes at firstname.lastname@example.org.