Wednesday, March 23, 2016

The Status of Undergraduate Women at MIT

Four weeks ago, MIT released a report detailing the experience and success of its undergraduate women. Written by two undergraduates, with the support of the MIT Office of  Institutional Research, the report assesses differences in experience and outcomes regarding academics, leadership, climate, and confidence. Caroline Chin and Kamilla Tekiela have done an outstanding job in summarizing the experience of many women entering the STEM fields. In short, they find that women are on average as successful or more successful than their male classmates, but they are less confident and do not feel as strongly supported by others.

The report was motivated by the students' observations of gender difference in experience and attitudes. To see if this was perception or reality, they conducted a survey of undergraduates and followed it up with focus groups. They accessed climate data from an MIT survey that had a higher response rate but provided less detail. They analyzed overall GPA and graduation rate data. The data were sufficient to show some differences in by race/ethnicity. The authors did not explore the dimensions of sexual orientation or gender identity and expression.

The report is for undergraduates what the 1999 report, A Study on the Status of Women Faculty in Science at MIT (the Hopkins Report) was for faculty. Similarly to Nancy Hopkins in the 1990s, Chin and Tekiela found that undergraduate women in STEM at MIT do at least as well as men, on average. For example, they have statistically higher GPAs in the same majors, they graduate at higher rates, and they are equally likely to be author on a publication or to receive an award. However, they experience microaggressions based on gender unlike their male counterparts. The report begins with a quote from a computer science undergraduate who overheard two male students in the elevator putting down women in the lab -- indeed, putting her down. After capturing the reader's attention, the authors proceed in a thorough analysis of data. I believe that any fair-minded reader will conclude that women are not treated equally to men in this group, and indeed that the differential experience is similar to what happens in other settings, including high school, graduate school, and beyond.

The report shows a smoking gun for the erosion of confidence among young women in STEM. On average, despite their superior accomplishments, women are not given encouragement consistent with their promise. Of course, there is a broad spectrum of experiences and abilities, so this conclusion does not apply to every individual. But when we look at persistence of women in STEM, it is eroded by the burden of having to justify one's gender, race, sexual orientation, ability, or other characteristics, when those are questioned as being different. In some fields like Physics, women who earn a bachelor's degree are at least as likely to continue in academia than men. This does not mean that women in physics experience a better climate; instead, the climate and culture are such that the loss of talent occurs before college, and that those who remain are more persistent. The report does not analyze this situation, and it would be great to see a report that does. But in other fields like the life sciences or computer science, there is a narrowing of the pipeline starting from college entry. The report helps explain how it happens.

Chin and Tekiela offer some excellent suggestions for MIT, and by extension other universities, to improve the retention and build the confidence of women in STEM. The first recommendation is to improve academic advising. Faculty advisors can play an important role in supporting and mentoring their advisees, yet the typical experience is limited to once/term meetings to discuss course registration. Students wish to have stronger relationships with faculty, and this would be of particular benefit to those whose confidence does not match their capability. It will not be easy to shift the culture of academic advising to become more of a mentoring role, but I believe this is essential for improving the success of all students.

The authors identify another reason for a confidence gap: male students in high school tend to get more experience than girls with coding, building robots, etc. The report's second recommendation addresses this by proposing workshops throughout the freshman year that address differences in technical experience among incoming freshmen. They suggest topics like Fundamentals of Java, Western Blot Basics, and Introduction to SolidWorks. (Astronomers might want to offer an introduction to IDL!)

The report makes many other recommendations, many of which (such as unconscious bias education, enhanced climate survey questions, and faculty recruitment efforts) are being made by other groups. At MIT as elsewhere around the US, students of color (and other groups, including LGBTQ) have made a variety of recommendations to improve the experience and success of all community members.

The report is much more than a set of recommendations and an analysis of survey data. As noted by student newspaper writer Sanjana Srivistava,

The ultimate message is empowerment: “women are doing very well, and they should be proud of what they’re doing,” Tekiela said. Chin hopes that eventually “females and males come to MIT and don’t have different experiences based on gender or race … that they have different experiences because they are different people.”

The Status of Undergraduate Women at MIT is a compelling and inspiring read. I highly recommend it to all readers of this blog.

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