Prof: Efforts to recruit women for STEM 'may be backfiring'

A professor at Georgetown University has found that STEM recruitment efforts actually “backfire” when targeted at women.

Adriana Kugler, who teaches economics at Georgetown, recently published her research on the gender-gap in STEM fields. She found that STEM recruitment efforts that stress the gender-gap in STEM actually serves to discourage women.

“Society keeps telling us that STEM fields are masculine fields, that we need to increase the participation of women in STEM fields, but that kind of sends a signal that it’s not a field for women, and it kind of works against keeping women in these fields,” Kugler says.

Many of the common explanations for the lack of women in STEM don’t hold up under investigation, Kugler explained to Campus Reform. While previous research suggests women are less “resilient,” or more negatively impacted by “bad grades,” Kugler says there’s “no evidence” to support that.

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Likewise, the claim that women do poorly in STEM solely because it’s male dominated isn’t supported by evidence either, Kugler says, noting that an aspiring female computer scientist won’t necessarily be turned away from knowing that the field is male dominated.

The trouble begins when the media and recruitment efforts capitalize on that preponderance of men, since it “sends an additional message to women that they don't fit into those fields, and that they don't belong there."

“With the media, women are getting multiple signals that they don't belong in the STEM field, that they won't fit into the field. That's what we find,” Kugler told Campus Reform. “It’s very well intentioned, but it may be backfiring.”

Kugler, who holds a PhD in Economics from the University of California at Berkeley, drew upon her own experience in STEM to explain the problem with STEM recruitment.

Kugler says that when she was studying for her PhD in economics, STEM recruitment efforts targeted towards women did not exist. The media never told her that STEM was a hostile place for women, and she wasn’t exposed to the type of media coverage we see today on the lack of women in STEM.

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“I was not all that aware of the lack of women in STEM when I started in my career, which probably served me well,” Kugler told Campus Reform

She graduated with her PhD in economics in 1997 and has been active in economics research and teaching since.

Kugler says that, to fix the gender gap in STEM, recruitment efforts need a major overhaul in the messaging they’re sending to young women.

“We don't mean to say that we shouldn't be recruiting women into STEM,” Kugler notes. Rather, she says, efforts to recruit women into STEM need to be transparent about their statistics.

Not all of STEM is male dominated, she stresses.

“We need to correct the record that STEM is male dominated,” she says, noting that there are many STEM fields that are female dominated, such as neurobiology and evolutionary biology. Likewise, many STEM fields, such as chemistry and mathematics are usually “neutral or half-and-half.”

Further, instead of privileging the narratives of women who leave STEM, the mainstream media would be more beneficial if it finds “women who have succeeded in those fields, and  shows those cases, so that women are encouraged instead of discouraged."

That does not discount the “culture of masculinity, sexism, and sexual harassment” that some women face in STEM, Kugler acknowledges. Rather, as she finds, the media portrayal of STEM as “masculine and male dominated” is the strongest factor that explains women’s increasing reluctance to enter the STEM field.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @Toni_Airaksinen