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MIT Study Figures Out Why So Many Girls Are Dropping Out Of STEM Programs


Of all the mysteries involved in raising a daughter, what the hell is going to happen with them and STEM is as much of a stumper as early puberty (but arguably less gross). Rest assured that the eggheads at MIT are trying to figure that out, at least when it comes to engineering — where women make up only 13 percent of the field. Women make up 20 percent of engineering graduates, but it’s estimated that 40 percent of them either quit or never enter the profession. So what’s driving them away? Researchers asked just that, and surprisingly it wasn’t the nerds. It was the bros.

The longitudinal study followed 700 students and over 3,000 diary entries across 4 schools with very different approached to their engineering programs: MIT, UMass, Olin College Of Engineering, and the women-only Picker Engineering Program at Smith College. Researchers found that women did as well or better than men academically, but often pointed to the “hegemonic masculine culture of engineering itself as a reason for leaving,” professor Susan Sibley, co-author of the study, explained in the Harvard Business Review. Retention problems started when female students had less confidence and required more affirmation than their male classmates. Trouble tended to continued in group projects, where women were more likely to be excluded from engineering tasks and relegated to administrative roles — as if they wanted to be secretaries the whole time.

If that wasn’t enough to drive women out of their respective engineering programs, poor internship placements did the trick. While a majority of the men in the study reported that their internship experiences were positive, women’s experiences were much more of a mixed bag, full of ageism, sexism, and not being taken seriously. When this was combined with the work not being as socially conscious as they wanted, many women switched career paths — frequently going into law or medicine, where men and women are almost equally represented.

“Educators and businesses need to pay more attention to how an occupation founded on a commitment to complex problem-solving so consistently fails to repair its well-documented gender problem,” Sibley recommends. It seems recent efforts to make STEM more appealing to girls are working on the front end, it’s the back end that desperately needs a new team of engineers to deprogram decades of institutional sexism that’s not just in engineering, but all over the damn world. Here’s hoping MIT can get on that next.

[H/T] Harvard Business Review