Sandra Cauffman was just seven years old when the Apollo 11 crew made a historic landing on the moon on July 20, 1969. Cauffman and other children in the neighborhood gathered around a neighbor’s flickering black and white television screen to watch Neil Armstrong plant his foot into the dusty lunar terrain — a mesmerizing moment during which she felt anything was possible.
“I told my mom I want to go to the moon,” said Cauffman. “And my mother said ‘you can be anything you want, just put your mind to it, you never know.’”
Cauffman is now the Deputy Director of the Earth Science Division in the Science Mission Directorate at NASA. But getting to that point was not easy; growing up in a poor Costa Rican family in San José Canton district meant Cauffman would have a number of barriers to obtaining her goal, not the least of which was gender.
Data show only 29% of the science and engineering workforce is comprised of women. And with the onus resting on the shoulders of higher education leaders to provide graduates for gaps in the workforce, as well as significant ROI for students — barriers in the pathway create not only moral challenges, but economic ones.
Pressures for women don’t start in college, but early on — and finding a solution to workforce demands requires leaders across the spectrum to collaborate in order to patch a leaky pipeline.
Early Education: Implicit bias creates the beginnings of a gender gap
Growing up Cauffman says her mother, a single parent, worked multiple jobs concurrently to keep the family afloat. But that didn’t stop her from being one of her daughter’s strongest advocates.
“I think parents and teachers have the power of elevating kids and helping them succeed, or they can consume them and tell them they can’t do anything,” said Cauffman. “I had a lot of encouragement from my mother and and that really pointed me … it helped me decide I wanted to be an engineer.”
In addition to her mother, Cauffman cites one particularly encouraging teacher as supporting her in her quest to get to the moon.
“I had a wonderful elementary school teacher, who was loving and demanded a lot out of her students. She taught me to participate in everything and pay attention,” said Cauffman. “I had her all the years, and she was very encouraging.”
But not all girls get the same encouragement. Experts show a lack of encouragement and confidence building from both parents and early instructors can result in girls devaluing their abilities, a symptom that can conflate throughout college and beyond.
Authors of a Joan Ganz Cooney Center report on early STEM education, “STEM starts early,” found gender-based perceptions around girls’ abilities can start affecting them as early as their toddler years. A longitudinal study of more than 12,000 students showed that while there isn’t a math gender gap in kindergarten, one forms and grows by the end of third grade among some of the top performing students — and much of it is attributable to the effects of teacher bias. Additional studies show girls begin downplaying their intelligence by around age 6.
“What we were seeing is even if you have a boy and a girl who are equally engaged with the material, equally well engaged in class [...] and that boy and girl has the same test score, it turns out that the teacher often says the boy has a higher math ability than the girl,” said Joseph Cimpian, one of the report’s authors. “The punchline is teachers underrating the ability of girls actually leads to the gender gap growing — it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
And the same thing happens in terms of parental encouragement, says Cindy Hoisington, an early childhood and elementary science teacher, at the Education Development Center. She mentioned a recent study where girl and boy toddlers traded clothing to see how parents would interact with them.
“The adults came in and the children they thought were girls — they were pushing dolls on them, talking a lot about feelings, and loving the baby doll and feeding it.“But, with the boys they were interacting with them with trucks and asking questions like ‘How do you think this works?’ Already with toddlers you will see that’s the kind of mindset that starts science learning,” said Hoisington.
Cimpian and his colleagues recommend more alignment between pre-K and elementary STEM education, including initiatives that offer information to parents on how to start engaging their children in these subjects. But closer collaboration with higher ed and industry at a younger age is also needed.
Research shows that interest in STEM peaks in middle school but can disappear in high school — often due to societal pressures. This particularly manifests in subjects like calculus, which are key to getting into STEM careers, with research showing that declining interest in STEM among girls from grade 4 onwards, controlling for for academic preparedness, career intentions, and instruction, means the odds overall of a woman being dissuaded from continuing in the subject is 1.5 times greater than that for a man.
More help from higher education and industry to build the pipeline
To tackle this higher education and tech industry leaders can begin to publicize more female role models and offer hands-on opportunities in science to younger girls through K-12 partnerships.
For example, the Women in Engineering program at the University of Maryland, College Park builds out the pathway for women by reaching out to girls in 4th through 12th grade with STEM programs offered throughout the summer and academic year. Initially, the program only targeted 11th and 12th graders, but the directors realized that by that it time, it was too late to attract and sustain interest.
By focusing on a greater segment of their desired future enrollees, the school is fostering a more viable talent pool from which to recruit. By tapping into girls’ curiosity while young and then building the confidence in their abilities into high school, these institutions are able to engage more women at a key transitional point at which they decide whether to go into a STEM major upon entering college.
Higher Education to career: Fear of failure leads to low retention rates
Cauffman managed to finish high school and went on to the University of Costa Rica, where she was told by professors studying electrical engineering wasn’t “womanly” enough.
“They told me I couldn’t study electrical engineering because I was a woman,” said Cauffman, who reports being steered toward industrial engineering instead. “I spent seven semesters in this, and I didn’t like it. So I decided to pack up and come to the United States.”
Cauffman would go on to learn English and take on a side job as a cashier in a hardware store to pay her way through bachelor’s and master’s degrees at George Mason University. She eventually graduated with degrees in electrical engineering and physics and was hired on the spot by NASA. But for many women, the pressures of not being “fit” for these types of careers compels them to give up and go into an alternative field — even if the interest and performance was sustained through high school.
Lisa Flores, a researcher from the University of Missouri whose work centers on retention factors for women in STEM, found engineering fields often lack women when there is an impression from the campus community they will not succeed. More specifically, her team found women often “expect negative experiences in the field and that might be enough to deter them.”
Cultural change is needed
Women leave the tech industry at a rate 45% higher than men and the gender gap in computing jobs has widened in the last 30 years. Colleges seeking to keep up their retention rates for women in STEM fields may be taking a step in the right direction by allowing industry partners to actively recruit women on campus, but leveling the playing field requires addressing culture in the classroom and in the workforce.
That’s the basis of efforts by The United Nations Women, which developed its HeForShe initiative to create networks between corporations, governments, and higher education institutions around the world to not only advance gender equity, making it clear that certain places of work are not just made for men.
Stony Brook University President Samuel L. Stanley, Jr., who is participating in the initiative,
said despite typically low retention rates in STEM fields, he found that those classes offering mentorship opportunities with female faculty members led to the institution retaining and graduating higher numbers of women in STEM.
“Women at Stony Brook graduate at a higher rate than men, so we’re missing opportunities to produce more engineers by not getting more women interested in STEM,” he said, calling the failure to attract more women to the disciplines “a tremendous waste of potential.”
Code.org CEO, Hadi Partovi said tech companies also have a responsibility to “promote role models who have diverse backgrounds to help show the younger generation examples of existing leaders in technology.”
“The internal culture of some of these companies is famously bad on diversity issues, and people should recognize that creates a disincentive for students to get into them and stay in the field,” she said.
“There is some understanding that needs to occur. Yes there are women and there are men, and that doesn’t determine what you can do,” said Cauffman, who recalled that during her work on the Hubble Space Telescope, male colleagues questioned her ability to do the work. “It’s a matter of speaking up and saying what your needs are — but also demonstrating your commitment.”