Degree Name

PHD, Doctor of Philosophy

Degree Type

Dissertation - Open Access

Department

Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies

Advisor

Committee Chair - Stacey Rutledge

Committee Member - Robert Schwartz

Committee Member - Sande Milton

Outside Committee Member - Sherry Southerland

Date

10-4-2010

Abstract

This qualitative study focused on female college seniors and their choices about their science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) college majors and career choice at the college level. STEM fields have an underrepresentation of women in both the numbers of degrees awarded each year and the number of women participating at the career level (National Science Foundation (NSF), 2007). College is a crucial time to study women’s STEM choices regarding majors and careers because women and men appear to be equally prepared for success in a STEM career when they enter college, but fewer women persist in these majors (NSF, 2007). This decrease in interest and persistence has been a phenomenon that policy makers and college administrators have tried to address. One of the prominent policy initiatives at the college level since 1990, has been single gender living and learning communities where women majoring in STEM fields live together on a dormitory floor. The program of focus in this study will be referred to as WSTEM (Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics).

This study had two purposes: first, to understand the factors that influence women’s persistence in STEM as the women move toward college graduation; second, to determine the role that WSTEM (a single-gender LLC) had on women’s persistence in STEM. To address these, this study focused on twenty six women who attended a Research 1 university in the southeastern United States from 2006 to 2010. Twelve of these women had participated in WSTEM and fourteen came from the general university population. All twenty six women were interviewed using narrative life history analysis to understand the influences on their decisions to stay or leave their original STEM major. At the time of graduation fourteen of these women (eight from the general population and six from WSTEM) graduated with a STEM degree and planned to pursue a STEM career and twelve chose to leave their original STEM major and did not plan to pursue a STEM career (six from the general population and six from WSTEM). The research was guided by the Eccles’ (2007) expectancy-value model related to career choice and Butler’s (1999) conception of gender.

The results of this study indicated that persistence in STEM degrees in highly influenced by three main factors: pre-college and college success in math and science; support from parents, teachers, and college professors; and peer support networks at the college level. The stayers mentioned these factors more than their leaving peers. Many of the participants (both stayers and leavers) identified gender related and non-gender related aspects of the chilly climate within college STEM departments that negatively influenced their STEM career decisions. However, the stayers were able to maintain high expectations of success and see value in their continued participation in STEM fields. This detailed qualitative study will help policy makers and program directors better understand how to increase the number of women in STEM fields by focusing on the factors that affect individual women’s choice of major and early career decisions. As a result, this study will contribute to the literature on improving women’s underrepresentation in STEM fields.

In response to the question of how WSTEM affected women’s decisions to persist in STEM fields, this study found that providing access to a female-friendly support group offers some benefits to persistence. However, a female-friendly environment within WSTEM did not always translate into female-friendly policies within STEM departments. All of the WSTEM leavers reported negative experiences within their STEM majors as factors in their decision to leave. Participants’ comments about WSTEM, however, indicated that the program provided a peer support network with even the leavers (5/6) reporting the positive influence of friendships they made through their participation in the program.

Drawing from these findings, this study concluded that WSTEM met its goals for the women who fully participated in it. Of those women who participated in research opportunities, all but one persisted. And all but one identified the social aspect of WSTEM as a positive influence on their college experience if not their STEM college experience. The findings did not unequivocally support the positive impacts of women-only programs. The study, like others (Mael et al., 2007), found mixed evidence regarding the impact of women-only STEM LLC’s on women’s persistence in STEM fields. These programs are one part of a multitude of other factors that affect persistence.

The study found that three main areas can positively affect women’s persistence in STEM fields: success in math and science classes before and during college; positive experiences with STEM fields and professionals in college; and peer support networks. The final area included both formal peer support networks such as WSTEM or informal groups composed of peers in one’s major. The results are discussed in detail and contribute to the growing literature on the influences that lead to STEM career choice at the college level. This study can also contribute to practices, theory, and policies related to increasing women’s persistence in STEM fields

Availability

Open Access

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