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Published December 10, 2019

Reducing gender bias in STEM education

Creating a sense of belonging for women through mentorship

Tiffany Karalis Noel, clinical assistant professor from the Department of Learning and Instruction, is exploring how to reduce gender bias against women in STEM education. “Despite progress with recruitment, as women in the United States continue to be underrepresented in STEM fields, it is imperative to understand the factors that may influence women’s feelings of belonging and motivation to remain in STEM fields,” Karalis Noel writes in a commentary article, “Exploring Non-Retention of Women in STEM,” for Teachers College Record.

She recommends individuals form and maintain relationships in systems or environments that allow them to feel that they are an integral part of their environments. “Advisors, teachers and others who work with women studying in STEM fields can help students stay in their programs by encouraging mentorship opportunities that establish a sense of ‘belonging’ with their academic and professional colleagues,” Karalis Noel says. “Through studies that have explored the importance of an individual’s sense of belonging within a field, findings revealed a sense of belonging as a predictor of success and retention.”

Findings indicate that gender harassment is one of the most common forms of bullying, and is defined as “verbal and nonverbal behaviors that convey hostility, objectification, exclusion or second-class status about members of one gender,” according to Karalis Noel. A University of Texas survey found that 20% of women in science, more than 25% of women in engineering, and more than 40% of women in medicine reported experiencing sexual harassment from peers and professors. Karalis Noel notes that this data is supported by additional refrains shared by the undergraduate women she listened to and learned from as a teacher educator between 2015 and 2018.

As a result of harassment and alienation within their own fields of study, women leaving STEM fields remains a serious problem, as Karalis Noel has witnessed many examples of talented students switching out of STEM classes. To eliminate harassment and reverse the trend of women switching out of STEM fields, she recommends fostering positive, affirming experiences early in students’ academic careers that will reverse the effects of being isolated and unwanted, including matching female students with female mentors.

“If we are going to have enough women available to mentor, then we need more students who are going into the field so they can be mentors,” Karalis Noel says. “It needs to be this constantly increasing process because when there are so few women in a mentoring position, compared to men, it’s less likely you can pair all those female students with female mentors.”

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