Choosing a STEM Major, Part I: The Role of Influencers and Interest on Women and Minorities

In 2016, Artemis Connection launched Project Ascendance, a study on the racial and gender divide. 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. This blog series shares preliminary findings from our research, based on individual interviews, literature review, and analyses. 

In our last article, we considered the role secondary education and role models play on a child's decision to eventually pursue a STEM career. This month we consider the undergraduate STEM degree: who and what influences a student’s decision to major in a STEM subject, and what are the particular challenges for women and minorities who do so?

Women and minority STEM majors, think back (maybe way back, ahem) to your undergraduate years. Do you remember the process by which you selected a major? Did you have a process? Who influenced your choice of degree? Do you remember facing any challenges as a STEM major because of your gender or minority status?

If you’re anything like the respondents in our Project Ascendance study, chances are that, as a woman and/or minority, your experience and decision to major in a STEM field was perhaps less conventional, straightforward, and comfortable than it might be for, say, a white male student. Here we share some of the observations from the respondents in our study on the role that influencers, gender, minority, and bias had on their experiences majoring in a STEM field during their undergraduate education. We believe their responses contribute important ideas to the discussion of attracting and retaining women and minorities to STEM careers.

Influencers

Despite research demonstrating that academic counselors play a pivotal role in keeping university students engaged in STEM fields through graduation,[1] individuals in our study almost never cited seeking out or obtaining assistance from counselors. Instead, college professors loomed large for our respondents, serving as both role models and crucial mentors, encouraging respondents to select the major in which the professor taught classes, providing support through difficult classes, and advising them on potential careers after graduation. In addition, individual experiences and relationships—the opportunity to do academic research in a STEM field or having a relationship with a practitioner in that field—solidified respondents’ interest in pursuing a STEM degree.

For example, one female respondent, now a serial entrepreneur, told us, “During my sophomore year, the only female professor in the Economics department pulled me aside and said I was doing a really good job in her course, and that I should stick with it even if I was one of the only women in the class.” Another white woman, today a senior leader in marketing at a high-tech company recalled that, “at the end of college, a professor who read my thesis suggested I publish it in a journal and offered to help me rewrite it. I did that with her. She reached out to me and encouraged me to go further.”

Interestingly, while peers were sometimes cited by our respondents as influencing their decision to take a class outside of their major areas of study, they were almost never cited as influential to a respondent’s decision to stay in a declared major. All of this suggests that professors play a large role as gatekeepers to STEM degrees and, ultimately, careers.

Interests

Given the role of individual professors and peers in steering the women and minorities in our study to STEM fields of study, it’s perhaps no surprise that our respondents cited choosing their major out of pure interest in the academic subject twice as often as they cited the potential for employment prospects or the likelihood of financial security after graduation. In addition, respondents described choosing a major because of its ability to allow them to apply their knowledge to concrete problems or activities slightly more than for employment prospects. There were no obvious gender differences among these justifications.

One white woman, now a high-tech entrepreneur, told us, “I was just in love with computer science. I hated writing but could just code for hours, but I wasn’t even thinking of computer science as a profession at the time.” Another woman and current tech leader said, “I loved economics and everything about it. I still had humanities classes, but economics gave me the tools to understand theories and how the world worked.”

One unique area where interest seemed to play a unique role for women in deciding on a STEM major was the perception that the degree would allow them to combine distinct interests. A number of women respondents (but no male respondents) described selecting a STEM major due to their impression that doing so would allow them to pair, say, qualitative and quantitative interests or technical and social interests, within a single STEM field of study. Often these dualisms centered on choosing a major that was both socially relevant and applicable to the job market, or gave the respondent the ability to help people and engage in intellectually stimulating work.

A white scientist-respondent said her choice to major in Sociology, “combined my intellectual passion for helping people with quantitative goals.” Another respondent, an Asian American woman who is now a VP at a tech company, recalled, “I had a friend in Electrical Engineering. He was taking a class in biomedical circuit-making and they had a webinar for Medtronic devices. He invited me along, and it really appealed to me because I could build things and help people.”

Finally, it’s interesting to note that perceptions of STEM disciplines varied. Some respondents believed that STEM majors are inherently social and practical, while others determined that these majors were isolating or too theoretical. One respondent, an Hispanic woman who is now an executive at a security company, explained, “When I got to college I had to choose between business/math and English/writing. Even though I loved math, I ultimately chose English because it was a human thing. In math I thought I’d just be working with numbers behind computers by myself.”

In Part 2 of Choosing a STEM major, we’ll consider the barriers to STEM degrees for women and minorities. Stay tuned.


[1] Berdahl, R. M. (1995), Educating the whole person. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 1995: 5–11.