Opinion: Women’s Professional Role Confidence in STEM Fields

Working in the Nano Lab, Photo Credit: University of Utah

It is no secret that females are a minority in many science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields. Reports are constantly produced stating that girls are not pursuing careers in these fields and there are countless theories for this trend. Some young girls feel like they are “not as good at math as the boys” or that it is “not as cool” to take some of the higher math courses, so girls may avoid it in their high school education. Because of the lack of females in these STEM fields it is also difficult for some girls to be introduced to potential role models while they are young, women who could serve as a direct inspiration.

I happened to survive that stage of the game. I found math and science courses enjoyable and challenging as I progressed through my K-12 education. I personally never observed any differential treatment between girls and boys when it came to education, so I was unaware at the time that any real difference existed. I credit my parents, teachers, and peers with this “situational unawareness” because they never treated me in a way to even question my abilities as a student.

To prepare for a seminar entitled “Encouraging Girls in Math and Science: A View from the Field”, I was asked to reflect on my educational experiences up to this point in my life. I found myself unable to relate to negative experiences in my K-12 education that would have deterred me from pursuing a career as an aerospace engineer; however, I almost did not make it to the professional world in this field.

Before I delve into my personal experience on that front, I would like to reinforce an important point: I was an excellent high school student and I entered college with great confidence in my math and science abilities. As I pursued two undergraduate degrees in engineering, I continued gaining confidence. I was hardworking, a team leader, and excelling in my mechanical and aerospace engineering courses despite being a female with limited mechanical background. I graduated with honors, and jumped into a direct-track Ph.D. program immediately following graduation. During my undergraduate tenure I had obtained internships with NASA and the Boeing Company, flown a research experiment in microgravity, and I had received several prestigious national awards recognizing my engineering and research abilities.

So why are those events described above relevant? They showcase that I did not have an obvious reason to doubt myself or question my professional abilities as an engineer at that point in my life. As I entered my graduate program I was enthusiastic about engineering and research. I wanted to work on something that would save lives in the aviation industry, and this passion followed me into the lab every day. For the first two and a half years of graduate school, I was the only female in my 10-person research team. I integrated well with the team and made some great friends throughout the process. However, as time progressed, the stress of working with a flight testing program began to wear on me. I was often frustrated (as many graduate students are because that is the nature of the work they do) with the lack of success we had on flight testing days or my own personal failures that would let the team down. Sometimes students in the team would snap at each other, not intending personal offense, but out of frustration of their own research situations. It took a significant toll on me, a girl who grew up thriving on positive reinforcement from the educational system without even knowing it.

As I look back on these experiences I have a much better understanding of what was taking place throughout those significant stages of my life. Growing up I did not really have too much direct positive reinforcement at home but more an environment of “step up to the plate, face the challenge, and let’s see what you can do”. The positive reinforcement came from results such as the grades I was bringing home on tests and my report card. I loved getting my report card so I could take it home and show it to my parents because I knew it would make them proud because I met the challenge. The positive reinforcement in my undergraduate career came from the grades and awards, the reaffirmation for me that I was pursuing the “right” major. In graduate school priorities are shifted. The focus is on the success of the research project or the team and I no longer was just responsible for taking care of myself but an entire team that could be affected by my performance. Positive reinforcement was rare, and as I was immersed within the clutches of graduate school I could not identify this as the issue that was shaking my confidence. In a sense, it was a dose of what the “real world” was going to look like and I wanted to make sure that I was well suited for the technical responsibilities that awaited me following graduation because I knew peoples’ lives could be in my hands. But how could I be sure I was well suited without some form of affirmation?

In graduate school there came a point where I dreaded waking up and going into the lab, and I strove to avoid having contact with colleagues who I envisioned as thinking I was not capable as an engineer (something that was my perception and not necessarily true). This destructive attitude caused me to shift my plans from being an engineer to going to law school and becoming an attorney once I graduated with my Ph.D. So what was going on? I doubted myself professionally, I lacked confidence in my technical abilities, and I thought that I was not as good at research as my immediate peers. I was seriously questioning whether or not I would be of any use to the field of aerospace engineering. This type of lack of confidence is not unique to me, and it was the focus of a study in the October issue of the American Sociological Review.

This study focused on women lacking what they termed “professional role confidence” referring to one’s own sense that they belong in a certain field. Erin Cech, a postdoctoral fellow in sociology at the Stanford University’s Clayman Institute for Gender Research and the primary author on the paper, noted that a gender-segregated profession such as engineering carries ingrained biases about men being more suited for the field. The study argues: “The more confident students are in their professional expertise, the more likely they are to persist in an engineering major. However, women have significantly less of this expertise confidence than do men.” The authors went on to write, “Once students matriculate into this math-intensive field, more complex, profession-specific self-assessments appear to replace math self-assessment as the driving social-psychological reasons for attrition.”

Previous fields of thought assumed that a lack of confidence in math abilities or the desire to be family-oriented drove women out of engineering; however, this study argues that they are not the significant players once women reach college. Other authors involved in this study, which followed 288 students who entered engineering programs at MIT in 2003 as freshmen through their senior year in 2007, include Brian Rubineau of Cornell University, Susan Silbey of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Caroll Seron of the University of California at Irvine.

Leading Women Online addresses this issue of professional role confidence through recommendations for a mentoring program, specifically focusing on the differences between mentoring men and women. The website sites a study conducted by Hewlett Packard where they asked a group of people about whether or not they would apply for a job based on what percentage of the qualifications they met in the description. On average, male responders said they would apply for the job if they met 60% of the listed requirements, where most women responded that they believed they needed to meet 100% of the requirements before they would submit an application. This study indicated that for many men, confidence and encouragement did not have as significant of a role in the “recipe for career success”. For women, however, these are prime players. Leading Women Online recommends a specific strategy when mentoring women for this reason: CAKE – confidence, aptitude and attitude, konnection (sic) to resources, and encouragement. Mentoring men on the other hand, requires focusing on PIE – performance, image, and exposure.

As women continue to try to break barriers and immerse themselves in male-dominated STEM fields, women role models and mentors will become a crucial foundation for retaining young women in these programs. Looking back to my graduate school experience, I am confident that I could have been better served to have a mentor keeping me focused on realistic goals and helping me remove my negative attitude toward my professional abilities. I found myself lost in a system where the focus was not on education and student development and often times these types of scenarios can cause women to take a step back and question their worth to the field. To curb this mentality, mentoring programs must be established in colleges that focus on providing female students with means to continually develop their professional role confidence. The Harvard College Women’s Center has already established such a program (Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics – WISTEM) that “seeks to foster a sense of community for women studying STEM fields at Harvard.” The program pairs female graduate students and undergraduate students to create a female network in these fields. More institutions should consider establishing similar programs to foster female development and help retain women in these male-dominated fields.

As for me, I graduated in May 2011 with my Ph.D. and I am proud to report that I am an aerospace engineer by trade. The turning point came following a research presentation I gave at a conference that landed me an interview with my current employer. As I finished the last 5 months of my graduate research, I had the support of my future colleagues – a group of people who believed in me and my professional abilities. It is hard to believe that something so small can make a difference in someone’s self-assessment, but it was the piece I had been missing during my graduate school years. Their confidence in me renewed my self confidence, and I finished my graduate studies like I had started them, full of passion to make a contribution to the engineering world.

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