Choosing a STEM Major, Part 2: Barriers to Completing STEM degrees for Women and Minority Students

In 2016, Artemis Connection launched Project Ascendance, a study on the racial and gender divide in STEM fields. An initiative of our 4.5% Giving Back Promise, Project Ascendance seeks to build a body of research and create actionable plans for women and minorities to advance their careers in STEM. This blog series shares preliminary findings from our research, based on individual interviews, literature review, and analyses. 

In the first article in this series, we shared findings from our study about who and what influences women and minority students to major in a STEM subject. This week, we consider the unique barriers these students face in earning STEM degrees.

Intimidating Coursework, Indifferent Teaching

If selecting a STEM major as a woman and/or minority undergrad was a leap of faith, completing that major was often a matter of feeling valued and connected to a degree program and its faculty, particularly for our women respondents. Recent research considering STEM degree attrition rates have centered around factors like poor teaching and the perception by students that math and science courses are difficult subjects suited only for a “select few” students with unusually high intelligence. In addition, there is noted concern that STEM academic programs do not provide students enough time to complete their coursework and/or to engage in other desirable extracurricular activities.

The handful of respondents in our study who switched out of a STEM major cited similar reasons for abandoning their major, including difficult prerequisite coursework and difficulty scheduling structured courses. One minority woman respondent recounted that she had been encouraged by her parents to attend a small liberal arts college “because of my introversion. I really wanted to be a math major, but the scheduling was so difficult I just decided to be an English major.” Another woman of color, who recalls her love for the exactness of chemistry and computer science, cited the high level of competition as her reason for leaving the STEM major behind.

In addition, women respondents (but no men) reported disappointment in the impersonal nature of the STEM curriculum at their colleges and universities, noting it often lacked a “human element.” Says one of our respondents, “I sat in on an organic chemistry class for two weeks and then quit. I gave up, in part, because I was intimidated by the 400-person lecture. I felt like the class wouldn’t miss me and I wouldn’t miss them.” Another woman respondent recalled STEM professors as a negative influence. “I did fine in my coursework, but the professors didn’t care. At the end of the year I decided that I wanted to find a major where they actually cared.”

A Lonely Path

Respondents in our study did not notice or did not experience high levels of disproportion in the number of male and female students in their classes until they entered their colleges/universities. For female respondents who declared male-dominated STEM majors, most accepted as a foregone conclusion that they would be in the minority in both their coursework and future workplaces. Those women we spoke with who completed their STEM major said they did so because of their internal dedication to the degree, a personal sense of self-efficacy, and/or because of their perception that this inequality represented an exciting challenge to overcome.  

Other women, however, reported feeling very uncomfortable in their STEM courses. Reasons included everything from microaggressions to a general, declining sense of confidence in their interest in pursuing STEM degrees. An overwhelming number of women cited feelings of isolation while completing their STEM majors. One women noted, “It became depressing. The first day of college I had to get textbooks and schedules: I was one of two women in line. There were ten women in the computer science program amongst hundreds of boys. I used to sit in the back of class. It just felt odd.” Another noted, “I was super intimidated in computer science classes and remember going into them and all of the instructors and classmates were men, and usually ones who never took care of themselves. I didn’t want to be someone who stayed up all night and coded and didn’t take care of my body. It was impenetrable because of that masculinity.”

Though instances of direct gender discrimination were rarer, our women respondents did relate some experience with this. One woman told us, “One of my college professors said that he never thought women should go into engineering. I blew the curves on the exams, which upset some students.” Another remembered, “In my physics class of 120 people, the professor stood up after exam and said, ‘By the way, the person that scored the highest was a woman, if you can believe that.’”

Finally, racial bias against minority students or immigrants pursuing STEM degrees was rarely cited among our respondents. Most reported experiencing more financial hardship, rather than any explicit discrimination. One minority respondent in our study may have some explanation for this: “For international students, failure wasn’t an acceptable option. One student even committed suicide because of their grades while I was there. Some of the Caucasian students were well off, so they didn’t have to worry about finances. I couldn’t drop a class because I couldn’t afford to retake it.”

We can’t help but extrapolate from our research that a more inclusive, supportive, and personal environment in STEM courses would result in more women and minority students completing STEM degrees. How and by what mechanisms this is achieved is certainly worthy of consideration in higher education, and one we plan to continue investigating. Feel free to subscribe to our blog to learn more.