"Can you really see yourself becoming that person?" — the question is one that consistently lingers in the back of students' minds, acting sometimes as a positive force and other times a point of self-doubt. But, to temper the stress that can come with doing this type of calculus, faculty, mentors and postsecondary leaders often act as important sources of inspiration and guidance.
As we try to digest how to get more women and underrepresented minorities into STEM fields, or really any other type of career, experts often say that one key factor is that students see in themselves a future through the people they look up to. In other words, it's difficult for a girl from a diverse background to see herself getting into a computer science field, when the demographics of her class and her professor is the complete opposite of anything she's ever known.
And in higher education, the issue is not so much that these role models are hard to find or they don't exist — but rather, they are hard to keep in academia. With an already small pool of diverse faculty students can seek support from, losing these professors to high paying tech jobs has started to become an issue that higher education leaders are grappling with. This is particularly apparent, as more stakeholders in the education industry are realizing that STEM fields are really the areas where students are wanting to get lucrative jobs.
They are turning to postsecondary institutions to offer them the skills and the support. So, a lack of faculty members to push students forward is not only limiting in terms of effective engagement — it's also bad for business.
And, it's an issue that affects all colleges and universities — even those that are actually succeeding in getting more underrepresented groups into the field. For instance, data from the Taulbee Survey shows that Harvey Mudd College is pacing well ahead of the national average in terms of science graduates that are female; 18% compared with 49% respectively. But even Maria Klawe, president of the institution, told Education Dive that the institution still struggles with one key thing preventing the needle from moving forward in terms of equitable access and graduation rates in STEM fields: faculty
"It influences our ability to create engaging learning environments for women and people of color — the fact that more and more people who might have become computer science faculty are being hired by industry into research positions or being given all kinds of opportunities at much higher salaries," Klawe explained.
"We are losing a lot of the potential people who might be teaching those classes and creating that engaging supportive environment...and this is happening not just at Harvey Mudd, but at Stanford, MIT, as well as state universities and so on. And so one of the things we have to start thinking about is how we can actually ensure we have enough people in higher education that can actually teach things like data science, statistics and computer science, considering that there is such a pool into industry right now," said Klawe.
For instance, in a Brookings piece researcher Cory Koedel explains that data from his study of faculty demographics across higher education institutions showed non-STEM fields are much more diverse. He writes that black faculty account for only about .7-2.9% of faculty in biology, chemistry, and economics, but around 9-15% of faculty in fields like educational leadership and sociology. Similarly, women are at around 18-30% of faculty in STEM fields, but 47-53% in non-STEM areas.
So, what can institutions do to start taking charge? And more importantly, why should they care? To answer the second — higher education leaders that don't start considering the role of faculty throughout their missions in creating a more diverse workforce are frankly missing a huge piece of the puzzle, as Klawe points out. Students entering college are increasingly nontraditional and come from much different backgrounds than before. So, figuring out how to attract and retain these figures — these agents of inspiration for students to stick it out through the field — is absolutely an essential prerequisite to targeting industry.
And to get to the first — Klawe ended our conversation with a good point: retaining faculty and making sure they don't enter a more lucrative field is a matter of paying them what they deserve and showing them that their expertise, as well as mentorship, is both valued and necessary to the institution.
"I think the solution is going to be that we have to make it more possible for people who have done a PHD in physics or mathematics or chemistry or biology who haven't found the possibility of academic employment, because there are very few faculty positions in those fields."
"And we have to think of ways of retraining those people so if they are interested, they can work at the interface of computer science or data science in some other field. And while we are doing that...we can use that as an opportunity to teach them how to teach in a way that is highly supportive of women and people of color. But, of course, we have to have the resources. We can't expect someone with a PHD to do more with out getting paid adequately," said Klawe.