Monday, June 10, 2013

Challenging the Status Quo in Utah

I read an interesting article in the on-line Daily Herald about efforts to attract more women to science and technical fields at Utah Valley University (UVU) in Orem, Utah.  The study contains a number of specific and reasonable suggestions for how to improve the current situation.

The article is written by Barbara Christiansen about a study by UVU professors Cheryl Hanewicz and Susan Thackeray.  The study was done to address the problem of women scoring lower than men on math and science standards tests when entering UVU.  Here are the numbers:  37% vs 43% women vs men meeting the standards for math and 25% vs 33% for science.   One of the motivations for the study was that the Utah legislature has recently approved $10M to enhance STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education and career opportunities in the state and the desire is apply these funds equitably.

A key recommendation of the study is to counsel parents to give the right messages to daughters as they grow up.  We hear a lot about peer pressure in the schools against girls going into "geeky" fields.  The study points out that parents have even more influence than peers at early ages and may inadvertently (or not!) be giving the message to their girls to steer clear of technical fields. 

Another recommendation is to correct misguided messages that are given to girls in school.  The report points out that girls often are made to feel that they were not born with the necessary talents for a career in science and math.  Quoting Thackeray: "They may have a mentality that if they are not born with it, they can't do it.  That is inaccurate. They should know that something like physics is hard for everyone. They need to have the understanding that beautiful things are seldom easy."

Good role models can also help convince young women that a science career is feasible and attractive.  The study recommends that women who succeed in a STEM degree be the front wave in mentoring the next generation.  This needs to be instituted carefully to not create too much of a burden on young women professionals.

I was encouraged by the article.  Utah is a conservative state overall and it is good to see attention being paid to the gender gap in STEM fields there.