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Exploring Non-Retention of Women in STEM

by Tiffany Karalis Noel - July 16, 2019

This commentary aims to present and emphasize undergraduate studentsí voices to call attention to issues surrounding belongingness and non-retention of women in STEM fields.



The theory of belonging suggests that individuals experience a need to form and maintain relationships in systems or environments that allow them to “feel that they are an integral part of this system or environment (Baumeister and Leary, 1995; Hagerty, Lynch-Sauer, Patusky, Bouwsema, & Collier, 1992, p. 173). Through studies that have explored the importance of an individual’s sense of belonging within a field (Dasgupta, 2011; Freeman, Anderman, & Jensen, 2007; Good, Rattan, & Dweck, 2012; Inzlicht & Good, 2006; Walton & Cohen, 2011), findings revealed a sense of belonging as a predictor of success and retention. Despite progress with recruitment, as women in the United States continue to be underrepresented in STEM fields, it is imperative to understand the factors that may influence women’s feelings of belonging and motivation to remain in the STEM fields (Smith, Lewis, Hawthorne, & Hodges, 2012, p. 131).  




From 2015 through 2018 as a PhD student and graduate instructor, I taught preservice teachers in courses such as Multiculturalism in Education and Content Area Literacy Methods. Since neither course was content-area specific, I had the opportunity to work with undergraduate students whose content areas ranged from my own area of expertise as a previous practitioner of English Language Arts, to areas I knew little about such as Chemistry and Technology. During these classes, I had the privilege of learning more about the perspectives and experiences of undergraduate—mostly young—women whose academic interests and career aspirations were frequently questioned, challenged, and sometimes derailed as a result of gender bias in the STEM fields.


I realized early on that conversations surrounding gender bias in the STEM fields were a hot topic among preservice teachers, and upon recognizing the fervor they expressed throughout in-class discussions and written reflections, I began taking notes on their common refrains: “I figured if I went into teaching, I could still pursue my interests in engineering and technology while also being taken seriously because teaching is a field dominated by women.” Although not all of the preservice teachers were transfers from STEM fields, several of them were, and their critical insights often sparked constructive conversations among all students—even those who did not identify as women who felt “pushed out” of STEM.




In a 2018 report released by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, researchers explained that women are often bullied or harassed out of fields such as science, engineering, and medicine. Findings indicated that gender harassment was one of the most common forms of bullying and was defined as “verbal and nonverbal behaviors that convey hostility, objectification, exclusion, or second-class status about members of one gender” (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2018, p. 170). In the same report, data was cited from a University of Texas survey that found 20 percent of women in science, over 25 percent of women in engineering, and over 40 percent of women in medicine experienced sexual harassment from peers and professors (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2018). This data was supported by additional refrains shared by the undergraduate women I listened to and learned from as a teacher educator between 2015 and 2018: “I knew I was being sexualized as one of the only women in my STEM classes. It was like the people in my program didn’t see me as someone who could offer valuable insights to our discussions, but someone they wanted to sleep with or objectify in other ways.”


In a study conducted by Leaper and Starr (2018), researchers examined whether women’s experiences of sexual harassment and STEM-related gender bias negatively impacted their motivation and career aspirations within STEM fields. Among a group of 685 participants averaging 19.67 years of age, 60.9% experienced STEM-related gender bias and 78.1% experienced sexual harassment from faculty, teaching assistants, and fellow students (Leaper & Starr, 2018). Beyond indicating that sexual harassment of women in STEM is common, the aforementioned 2018 National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine report also concluded the following: women of color and members of the LGBTQ community were more likely to be harassed; the most common forms of harassment were degrading jokes and comments that caused women to feel inferior and excluded, especially in leadership positions; and women who experienced harassment were more likely to avoid meetings and quit their jobs.


While studies such as McLaughlin, Uggen, and Blackstone (2017), Cervia and Biancheri (2017), and Center for Talent Innovation (2018) have provided significant insights and considerations regarding the profoundly problematic issues of bullying and harassment and their impact on women in STEM academia and industry, the undergraduate students I worked with called attention to a need for earlier intervention for the concerns at hand: “You hear a lot about career women who describe how they overcame disrespect and skeptics and became leaders in STEM. I think that’s great, but why do we always hear these uplifting stories so far after the struggle period? If I become a female leader in STEM 20 years from now, I don’t want to talk about how I battled the haters for 20 years in silence. I want to talk about the issues in my classes now and get people to open their eyes to the injustices that young women in STEM still experience.”




In August 2017, Georgetown University released a paper that explored what drives women who initially enrolled as STEM majors to switch into non-STEM programs. One of the co-authors, Adriana Kugler, a professor in Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy, explained that “it takes multiple cues signaling lack of fit with a major (low grades, gender composition of class, and external stereotyping signals) to impel students to switch majors” (Kugler, Tinsley, & Ukhaneva, 2017, p. 4). Findings of the study also suggested that because society continues to stereotype STEM fields as masculine (Francis et al., 2017), women continue to receive the message that STEM fields are not an appropriate fit for them, which, in turn, continues to work against keeping women in these fields (Kugler, Tinsley, & Ukhaneva, 2017).


Although we see more women in STEM today than in decades past, perhaps the issue is no longer about implementing efforts to recruit women into STEM fields, but rather to retain them and ensure they experience a sense of belonging in their programs. In a study organized by Dennehy and Dasgupta (2017), researchers conducted a longitudinal experiment that investigated the effect of peer mentoring on women’s experiences and retention in the engineering field. The study analyzed results that transpired when 150 incoming women were each assigned a male mentor, female mentor, or no mentor. At the end of their first year, 18 percent of the women who were assigned male mentors had dropped out of their programs or switched majors; 11 percent of women who were not assigned mentors also either dropped out of school or switched their major; and all the women who were assigned female mentors remained in the engineering program they initially enrolled in (Dennehy & Dasgupta, 2017).


Furthermore, Dennehy and Dasgupta (2017) confirmed that similar to the findings of Kugler, Tinsley, and Ukhaneva’s (2017) study, a critical element related to retention is the sense of belonging, self-efficacy, and fit that women in STEM fields would benefit from experiencing in order to increase their likelihood of remaining in their respective majors. According to Nilanjana Dasgupta, a psychology researcher at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst,

Poor performance is not what drives [women] out. Feeling like they fit in, or not, is the critical ingredient that determines retention... I think belonging is particularly important when it comes to retention, arguably more so than it is for recruitment. Usually, people walk through the door if they have some degree of ability, interest, and curiosity about a subject. What makes them stay is belonging (National Science Foundation, 2016).



As a teacher educator whose favorite aspect of the profession is working with preservice teachers whose content-area interests and subject areas of expertise range widely, I consider it my egocentric personal privilege when women switch out of their STEM majors and into my classrooms to pursue a career in STEM education rather than industry. However, when that recourse occurs as a result of bullying, harassment, inadequate support, and/or absence of mentorship, I consider it a warning signal—or perhaps a series of warning signals—for instructors, advisors, fellow students, and other participants within the STEM fields who may not be sufficiently fostering the sense of belonging and/or mentorship that Dennehy and Dasgupta (2017) describe as being critical components of undergraduate women’s retention. Whether these insufficiencies are occurring as the result of unawareness, lack of resources, or overwhelming class sizes, to name a few reasonable circumstances, if you advise, teach, and/or collaborate with women in STEM, consider implementing approaches such as increasing mentorship opportunities or conducting mindset interventions with students to better understand their academically-influenced personal experiences and, accordingly, how to proactively improve the conditions that might be deterring their willingness to remain in the field.



Baumeister, R. F., & Leary, M. R. (1995). The need to belong: Desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 117(3), 497–529.

Center for Talent Innovation. (2018). Wonder women in STEM and the companies that champion them. Center for Talent Innovation. Retrieved from http://www.talentinnovation.org/publication.cfm?publication=1630

Cervia, S., & Biancheri, R. (2017). Women in science: The persistence of traditional gender roles: A Case Study on Work–Life interface. European Educational Research Journal, 16(2–3), 215–229.

Dasgupta, N. (2011). Ingroup experts and peers as social vaccines who inoculate the self-concept: The stereotype inoculation model. Psychological Inquiry, 22(4), 231–246.

Dennehy, T. C., & Dasgupta, N. (2017). Female peer mentors early in college increase women’s positive academic experiences and retention in engineering. Proceedings from the National Academy of Sciences 2017, 114(23), 5964–5969.

Francis, B., Archer, L., Moote, J., DeWitt, J., MacLeod, E., & Yeomans, L. (2017). The construction of physics as a quintessentially masculine subject: Young people’s perceptions of gender issues in access to physics. Sex Roles, 76(3), 156–174.

Freeman, T. M., Anderman, L. H., & Jensen, J. M. (2007). Sense of belonging in college freshmen at the classroom and campus levels. Journal of Experimental Education, 75(3), 203–220.

Good, C. D., Rattan, A., & Dweck, C. S. (2012). Why do women opt out? Sense of belonging and women’srepresentation in mathematics. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 102(4), 700–717.

Hagerty, B. M., Lynch-Sauer, J., Patusky, K. L., Bouwsema, M., & Collier, P. (1992). Sense of belonging: A vital mental health concept. Archives of Psychiatric Nursing, 6(3), 172-177.

Inzlicht, M., & Good, C. (2006). How environments can threaten academic performance, self-knowledge, and sense of belonging. In S. Levin & C. van Laar (Eds.), Stigma and group inequality: Social psychological perspectives (pp. 129–150). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Kugler, A., Tinsley, C., & Ukhaneva, O. (2017). Choice of majors: Are women really different from men? Institute of Labor Economics. Retrieved from http://ftp.iza.org/dp10947.pdf

Leaper, C., & Starr, C. R. (2018). Helping and hindering undergraduate women’s STEM motivation: experiences with STEM encouragement, STEM-related gender bias, and sexual harassment. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 43(2), 1–19.

McLaughlin, H., Uggen, C., & Blackstone, A. (2017). The economic and career effects of sexual harassment on working women. Gender & Society: Official Publication of Sociologists for Women in Society, 31(3), 333–358.

National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. (2018). Sexual Harassment of Women: Climate, Culture, and Consequences in Academic Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

National Science Foundation (2016, August 26). ‘Belonging’ can help keep talented female students in STEM Classes. National Science Foundation. Retrieved from https://www.nsf.gov/discoveries/disc_summ.jsp?cntn_id=189603&org=NSF

Smith, J., Lewis, K., Hawthorne, L., & Hodges, S. (2013). When trying hard isn’t natural: Women’s belonging with and motivation for male-dominated STEM fields as a function of effort expenditure concerns. Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin, 39(2), 131–143.

Walton, G. M., & Cohen, G. L. (2011). A brief social-belonging intervention improves academic and health outcomes of minority students. Science, 331, 1447–1451.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: July 16, 2019
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22973, Date Accessed: 1/21/2022 9:40:16 AM

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About the Author
  • Tiffany Noel
    University at Buffalo, The State University of New York
    E-mail Author
    TIFFANY KARALIS NOEL, Ph.D, is the Director of Doctoral Studies and Clinical Assistant Professor in the Department of Learning and Instruction at University at Buffalo, The State University of New York.
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