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Lessons from Diverse Women in STEM: Acknowledging Institutional Challenges and Empowering Agency Towards STEM persistence
There is compelling evidence demonstrating the continued underrepresentation of women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. Despite having equal qualifications and abilities, graduate women in STEM face significant barriers that thwart their academic persistence. These barriers include feeling undervalued, delegitimized, isolated, and harassed (Bernstein, 2011; Ong et al., 2011; Wilkins-Yel, Simpson, et al., 2019). For women of color (WoC), not only must they contend with gendered experiences, they must also navigate racialized experiences within their STEM environments (De Welde & Laursen, 2011; Malcom & Malcom, 2011; Ong et al., 2011; Wilkins-Yel, Hyman, et al., 2019). These barriers have led many women to exit their doctoral programs prematurely, with the attrition rate for WoC being particularly high. Research shows that the seven-year attrition rate is 34% for WoC in STEM, including half of those withdrawing from their doctoral studies in the first two years of their program (Sowell et al., 2015). These statistics highlight the need for an in depth understanding of the ways to support STEM persistence among women in STEM amidst these debilitating and prevalent barriers. Drawing on Social Cognitive Career Theory (SCCT: Lent et al., 1994), the study presented here foregrounded the voices of diverse graduate women in STEM – including both women who completed and those who prematurely discontinued their STEM doctoral degrees – to ‘listen’ and gain insights into their suggested strategies for STEM persistence. This undertaking is part of a larger NSF-funded study within the CareerWISE research program, which aims to understand and strengthen the persistence of women in STEM doctoral programs.
Participants The data reported here were collected from 33 women, 20 of whom completed a PhD and 13 of whom discontinued PhD doctoral programs in STEM since 2015. These participants were from 21 universities in the U.S. and ranged in age from 27 to 33. Participants included women who identified as Hispanic/Latinx (N = 6), Black/African American (N = 10), White/Caucasian (N = 11), and multi-racial (N = 6), and represented thirteen different STEM fields in engineering, biological sciences, physical sciences, and mathematics.
Procedure Participants first completed a screening survey to determine eligibility. Eligible participants for this larger study were women who identified as Black/African American, Hispanic/Latinx, and/or White/Caucasian who either completed STEM doctoral degrees or chose to leave prior to completion since 2015. Participants who completed their degrees were recruited from academic departments, professional associations, minority STEM organizations, professional listservs, and alumni networks, while participants who discontinued their PhD programs were recruited using snowball sampling and referrals from academic departments and professional networks. All participants received a $50 gift card upon completion of their participation. Semi-structured interviews were conducted via the Zoom video conferencing platform and ranged in length from 60 to 90 minutes. Five questions and related probes were designed to elicit participants’ perceptions of support episodes at challenging times during their STEM doctoral programs.
Analysis The data reported here focused on the responses to the following question on the interview protocol: “Drawing from your experience, what advice would you like to give to another woman [of color, when appropriate] who is considering leaving her doctoral program?” Interviews were recorded and subsequently transcribed. Transcriptions were analyzed by two doctoral students using a constant-comparative, open coding process (Glaser, 1965; Saldaña, 2014). Information from these interview responses led to the development of themes that captured sources and types of support described by participants as helpful (or not) in promoting their persistence in doctoral programs across the nation.
A total of four themes were created to summarize participants’ suggestions and recommendations to women and women of color who might be considering discontinuing their STEM doctoral pursuits. These four themes are described below.
Theme 1: Seek Interpersonal Support The majority of participants (N = 20) underscored the importance of seeking support from individuals both within and outside of the STEM academic environment. This included connecting with other graduate students with shared identities (e.g., race and/or gender), creating support networks if none existed currently, surrounding oneself with people who want you to succeed (e.g. mentors/advisors), and utilizing online resources for support if in-person sources were unavailable (e.g., Vanguard in STEM). Juliana shared that her support structures were instrumental to her persistence. She stated, “I think it's really important to create your community and your support system because without that, I definitely couldn't have made it through.”
Theme 2: Prioritize Mental Health & Wellbeing More than half of the participants (N = 17) discussed the importance of prioritizing mental health and well-being amidst the myriad of challenges. Specifically, they suggested exploring and identifying the source of difficulties, assessing how a graduate degree aligns with one’s identity, values, and life goals, and obtaining mental health services as needed. Giselle, a Latinx graduate student who chose to discontinue her doctoral degree recommended talking with a mental health professional. She stated: “I also think mental health, like even if you don't feel like you're depressed, talking about it with professionals, mental health professionals, can help prevent thoughts that sometimes are just artificial, that may not have a basis, like, "Giselle, you're not good." Well, where is that coming from? You are good. You got accepted into a program. What is it? What is causing that? If I had an earlier intervention on that, I would have been doing that.”
Theme 3: Affirm and Encourage One’s Belonginess in STEM Fourteen participants, many of whom were women of color, stressed the importance of affirming women’s belongingness in STEM. Further, participants encouraged graduate women in STEM to ground themselves in the knowledge that they are worthy and deserving of their place in STEM. For example, Gloria, a Latinx women in Engineering stated, “we have a lot against us, professors, people that think that you don't deserve to be there because you are a minority, people that think that you are less, people that think that because you're a woman you have it easier than the rest, which sometimes is the other way around. You had it harder because you have to show yourself three or four times more than a man will do. I think just acknowledging how much you have accomplished and how much you're worth, that's the biggest part of keep going.” Similarly, Tiffany stated, “You're smart, you were smart before you got here. You're still smart, you still can do this and even if there are things you don't know, this is a part of your training. You're here to learn. Don't let anybody tell you, you're not smart. Do what you gotta do, I think that's the main thing.”
Theme 4: Explore Different Academic Options In addition to affirming women’s place in STEM, 14 participants acknowledged the psychological toll that stemmed from persisting in a toxic academic environment and encouraged participants to explore alternative academic options as needed. Such exploration included finding a different advisor, being open to compromise, changing committee members and/or research topic, weighing the pros and cons of persisting in an unhealthy environment, and switching to another PhD program. For example, London stated, “it's okay to explore your options and not feel like you have to be obligated to stay in a place that doesn't support your growth.” Lindsay echoed similar statements when she shared, “there's plenty of other people who've gone through it. Honestly, the only reason why I felt okay about [leaving my program] in the beginning was because I found someone else on Twitter who was very open about how they had left their PhD program after two years, but had gotten a grant moved to a different school with a more supportive advisor and they just got their PhD. I think that it's important to know that you're not alone, that other people have done this and that if you do want to finish the PhD, you can still do it somewhere else.”
Consistent across participants’ narratives was an acknowledgement of the myriad of difficulties that accompany the pursuit of a STEM doctoral degree as a woman from diverse racial/ethnic backgrounds. However, this acknowledgement was often paired with sentiments that affirmed women’s belongingness in STEM and empowering suggestions to enact one’s agency. The complete results of this study will be included in the full paper.
Schuyler, S., & Briseno, J. S., & Natarajan, M., & Sista, A., & Wilkins-Yel, K. G., & Arnold, A., & Bekki, J. M., & Bernstein, B. L., & Randall, A. K. (2021, January), Lessons from Diverse Women in STEM: Acknowledging Institutional Challenges and Empowering Agency Toward STEM Persistence Paper presented at 2021 CoNECD, Virtual - 1pm to 5pm Eastern Time Each Day . 10.18260/1-2--36106
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