Seven Practices to Improve Retention of Women in STEM (part 4 of a series)

Seven Practices to Improve Retention of Women in STEM (part 4 of a series)

Photo: Mark Schar

Part 4 of a four-part series, "Closing the Gender Gap in Your STEM Classroom," that bridges research to practice by providing you with seven key practices to make your STEM courses more inclusive. 

In Part 1, Scutt explained some foundations of gender analysis, common metrics in research on STEM education, and conditional effects.  In Part 2, Scutt recommended four specific actions instructors can take to improve retention of women students in STEM fields, and in Part 3, she gave three scaffolding practices to implement in classroom practices.

The original paper upon which the series is based is “Research-Informed Practices for Inclusive Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) Classrooms: Strategies for Educators to Close the Gender Gap,” by Scutt, Gilmartin, Sheppard, and Brunhaver.  It can be downloaded from the American Society for Engineering Education’s 2013 Annual Conference Proceedings at

Time to Act to Retain Women in STEM

The goal of this series has been to share recent research findings about gender’s relation to STEM classes so that you can be aware of the ways in which your students may be affected differently and the simple steps to provide a more inclusive classroom. Small changes can make a big difference when it comes to senses as powerful as those of motivation or belonging.

The seven practices comprise both skills to encourage in your students and changes to make in your classroom.

The first four are skills to encourage in your students:

  1. A foundation in calculus: students who take calculus have double or triple the likelihood of choosing a STEM major
  2. Spatial Skills: improving spatial skills improves women’s retention in engineering
  3. Communication: fight the notion that communication skills are not of value in STEM pathways
  4. Resilience: empower students by instilling a growth mindset and sharing your stories of failure

The other three are classroom scaffolds:

  1. Active Expert Roles: give students a chance to take ownership of a topic or project to enhance engagement and belonging
  2. Clarity in Grading Policies: reduce the effects of biased self-assessment by providing clear expectations and explanations of assessments
  3. Re-evaluate Group Work Practices: be aware of how group dynamics may reinforce the exact stereotypes and roles you are trying to break down

Cautionary note

After discussing these gender differences and conditional effects, it is important to close with a cautionary note of two things to avoid:

1) We must avoid over-generalization because neither men nor women can be treated as one homogeneous group. There is often more variation between individuals than between men and women.

2) We cannot overemphasize gender differences in light of other variables or factors, for instance, institutional, racial, or socioeconomic differences. We must not overemphasize the differences found, if any, nor attribute gender differences to sex, without further research. Gender differences in STEM education cannot be fully understood without attention to race, ethnicity, and family income level or socioeconomic status.  

It is important to place gender differences in the larger context of other factors affecting an outcome. As researchers and educators, we must seek to understand and address the underrepresented, underperforming, and underserved students, but not lose sight of the common threads among all students and the power of a well-designed classroom to support them.

First Steps

Take your first steps towards a more inclusive classroom today.

  • For more detail, visit the original paper or the cited resources.
  • Discuss your thoughts and observations with your colleagues.
  • Take a moment to consider how you treat the young men and women in your office hours. Are you implying that only inborn aptitude brings success, or do you convey that success comes from hard work and persistence?
  • Look at your assignments.  Do they allow students to assume an active expert role?  Do they help them exercise communication and teamwork skills?

At the heart of these seven practices are not new textbooks, online resources, or other curricular changes. They are about the messages you send to students, spoken and unspoken. It starts with you.

What are you doing, or what new technique will you try, to support women and all students in your classroom?

Helena Scutt is a senior majoring in Biomechanical Engineering and coterming in Mechanical Engineering. She spent the summer of 2012 in Dr. Sheri Sheppard’s Designing Education Lab researching gender in engineering education. She is currently working on optogenetics in Dr. Scott Delp’s Neuromuscular Biomechanics Lab. She has been Captain of the Varsity Sailing Team for two years and is on the US Sailing Team Sperry Top-Sider.