Teaching science for all: helping women fulfill their potential

Teaching science for all: helping women fulfill their potential

Currently less than one-quarter of bachelor degrees awarded in fields such as computer science, engineering, and physics go to women, and the attrition rate for female science graduate students is notably higher than for males (Hill et al., 2010). Over the last few decades, the number of women in STEM fields has been growing substantially, yet a gender gap still exists.

This post focuses on the progress women have made in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields in recent decades, how far they still have to go, and how teachers can help close the gender gap through more inclusive teaching. I spoke with several female science PhDs at Stanford about their experiences as women in STEM fields – Jennifer Saltzman, Director of Outreach Education for the School of Earth Sciences, Margot Gerritsen, Associate Professor in Energy Resources Engineering and Director of the Institute for Computational and Mathematical Engineering (ICME), and Gail Mahood, Professor in the Department of Geological & Environmental Sciences.

As a graduate student, Mahood was the first female advisee her PhD advisor had ever taken on. When she started at Stanford in 1979, she was the second-ever female faculty member in the Geology department, arriving 9 months behind the first. 

In the field of computational mathematics, as a female, Gerritsen says she was always outnumbered. Gerritsen was one of only two females in her undergraduate class of approximately 40 and is now the only female faculty member in ICME, out of a total of 47.

Saltzman, in contrast, found that females were well represented in her fields of study. Saltzman studied Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences as an undergraduate and received a PhD in Biological Oceanography, working with a female advisor. Today, in her role as Director of Outreach Education, she works with more female science teachers than male teachers.

Clearly, the gender gap in STEM fields has not been closing equally across the board. There has been a substantial increase in the percentage of women awarded degrees in biology, chemistry, earth sciences, and mathematics in the last 30-40 years, reaching a ratio for men to women of approximately 1:1 (Hill et al., 2010). However, fields such as physics, engineering, and computer sciences are still significantly unrepresented by women, with an ratio closer to 5:1 (Hill et al., 2010).

Stereotype threat

Stereotype threat refers to an individual’s fear of confirming a stereotype about her/himself by reducing her/his aspirations related to that stereotype. Subsequently, this negatively influences performance on tasks related to the stereotype (Walton and Spencer 2009).

The long-held stereotype that males are naturally superior to females in mathematics and the physical sciences has left its mark in today’s society in several ways. First, research shows that, in general, females tend to judge their science and math skills more harshly than do males (Hill et al., 2010).

Second, this stereotype threat lends itself to a fixed intelligence mindset, implying that individuals are either born with or without math and science talent (Hill et al., 2010). Females are more likely to give up on math and science if they are under the impression that these are fixed skills that males are more likely to have.

Third, stereotype threat can actually lower the performance of many females in STEM fields. A research study conducted by Spencer et al. (1999) recruited 54 first-year University of Michigan students, 30 female and 24 male, with similarly strong math backgrounds, test scores, and grades. The students were divided into two groups and each given a series of math questions. One group was told that men perform better than women on the test (the threat condition) while the other was told that there was no gender gap in test performance (the non-threat condition). They found that the women in the threat situation performed significantly worse than both the men and the women in the non-threat situation. Moreover, there was almost no gender difference at all in the non-threat situation. Since Spencer et al. (1999) conducted this study, more than 300 simialr studies have been published with comparable results (Hill et al., 2010).

While Gerritsen and Mahood each completed PhDs in male-dominated STEM fields, neither of them reports feeling the pressure of stereotype threat. Gerritsen mentioned that she has encountered negative remarks and harassment throughout her career, but she never dwells on it. Mahood notes that stereotypes against women have actually made her stronger; she has always refused to give in to them.   

However, as Steele (2010) documents, stereotype threat can affect people's performance even when they're not aware of its effect.  So it's vital to take steps in the classroom to neutralize it.

Teaching for equality in STEM fields

Some steps you can take to help overcome the gender gap include (Hill et al., 2010; Blickenstaff 2005):

  1. Raise awareness to everyone in your classroom, especially females themselves, about the implicit gender bias in math and science so that it can be counteracted.
  2. Discuss women’s achievements in math and science. Women have been contributing to STEM fields for as long as men, and while doing so they’ve also had to overcome prejudices and fight for their rights, making their achievements even more impressive.
  3. Introduce positive female role models that can share their experiences as females working in STEM fields and encourage the development of female support groups in STEM environments.
  4. Promote a growth mindset over a fixed mindset by emphasizing that intelligence and skills can be improved with effort and perseverance.
  5. Discuss the relevance of STEM fields in real-life applications. In general, females are often driven towards fields that fulfill communal goals and contribute directly to improving our society (Diekman et al. 2010). While STEM fields absolutely fit this description, it is not always obvious from the outside when, for example, taking introductory classes in computer science or calculus.

Opportunities at Stanford to support women in STEM

As a student, a faculty member, or a staff member, there are ample opportunities for both females and males to get involved with organizations at Stanford that support and encourage equality in STEM fields. Some examples are mentioned below.

Saltzman is a member of the Association for Women in Science (AWIS), an organization supported by Stanford through VPGE, where she acts as a mentor to graduate and post-doctoral women. In addition, since 2001 VPGE has supported groups for Women in Science and Engineering (WISE).

The Clayman Institute for Gender Research offers workshops, conferences, fellowships, and leadership programs targeted at advancing gender equality.

In addition there are many student-led organizations, such as She++, Stanford’s first conference on women in technology. She++ was launched in 2012 to help create a community for female technologists.

How do you encourage or improve inclusive teaching?  What other support do you know of for women in STEM?


Mandy McLean holds an M.S. degree from Stanfordin Environmental Earth System Science and teaches science at the Drew School in Palo Alto.

See also

Belonging Matters

Stereotype Threat: How It Affects Us and What We Can Do About It

"Growth Mindset" interventions

Making Computer Science More Inclusive

Supporting Vulnerable Students

A Foundation for Understanding Gender Differences (part 1 in a series of 4 on women in STEM)


Blickenstaff, Jacob Clark. 2005. “Women and Science Careers: Leaky Pipeline or Gender Filter?” Gender and Education 17 (4) (October): 369–386. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/09540250500145072.

Diekman, Amanda B, Elizabeth R Brown, Amanda M Johnston, and Emily K Clark. 2010. “Seeking Congruity Between Goals and Roles: A New Look at Why Women Opt Out of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Careers.” Psychological Science 21 (8) (August): 1051–7. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20631322.

Hill, Catherine, Christianne, Corbett, and Andresse St. Rose. 2010. “Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics”. Washington, D.C. http://www.aauw.org/resource/why-so-few-women-in-science-technology-engineering-and-mathematics/.

Spencer, Steven J., Claude M. Steele, and Diane M. Quinn. 1999. “Stereotype Threat and Women’s Math Performance.” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 35 (1) (January): 4–28. doi:10.1006/jesp.1998.1373. http://linkinghub.elsevier.com/retrieve/pii/S0022103198913737.

Steele, Claude.  Whistling Vivaldi:  How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do.  New York:  W. W. Norton & Co., 2010. Print.

Walton, Gregory M and Steven J Spencer. 2009. “Latent Ability: Grades and Test Scores Systematically Underestimate the Intellectual Ability of Negatively Stereotyped Students.” Psychological Science 20 (9) (September): 1132–9. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19656335.