Research News

Sense of ‘belonging’ key to retention of women in STEM

Undergraduate students learn CRISPR gene editing in the Biology lab of Nitasha Sehgal in Hochstetter Hall.

Undergraduate students learn CRISPR gene editing in the lab of biologist Nitasha Sehgal in Hochstetter Hall. Research has found that having a female mentor is critical to retaining women in STEM fields. Photo: Douglas Levere


Published October 17, 2019

Tiffany Karalis Noel.
“Through studies that have explored the importance of an individual’s sense of belonging within a field, findings revealed a sense of belonging as a predictor of success and retention. ”
Tiffany Karalis Noel, clinical assistant professor
Department of Learning and Instruction

Advisers, teachers and others who work with women studying in STEM fields can help students stay in their programs by encouraging mentorship opportunities that establish a sense of “belonging” with their academic and professional colleagues, according to a Graduate School of Education professor who specializes in preparing teachers for the classroom.

Tiffany Karalis Noel, clinical assistant professor and director of doctoral studies in the Department of Learning and Instruction, recommends “mindset interventions” with students.

These mindset interventions — or opportunities to learn about the beliefs that influence students’ responses to challenges or setbacks — would lead to better understanding about students’ academic experiences and “improve the conditions that might be deterring their willingness to remain in the field,” Karalis Noel says.

“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,” she writes in a commentary article, “Exploring Non-Retention of Women in STEM,” for Teachers College Record.

Karalis Noel cites studies on theories of belonging that suggest individuals need to form and maintain relationships in systems or environments that allow them to feel that they are an integral part of their environments.

“Through studies that have explored the importance of an individual’s sense of belonging within a field,” she writes, “findings revealed a sense of belonging as a predictor of success and retention.”

At issue is gender bias aimed against women pursuing careers in STEM — science, technology, engineering and math. Karalis Noel cites studies documenting how women are often “bullied or harassed” out of these fields.

“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,’” she writes.

In the same report, a University of Texas survey found that 20% of women in science, more than 25% of women in engineering, and more than 40% of women in medicine reported experiencing sexual harassment from peers and professors.

“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,” Karalis Noel says.

“I knew I was being sexualized as one of the only women in my STEM classes,” one female student told Karalis Noel. “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.”

As a result of this harassment and alienation within their own fields of study, women leaving STEM fields remains a serious problem, according to Karalis Noel. She says she has seen many examples of talented students switching out of STEM classes.

“I consider it a warning signal — or perhaps a series of warning signals — for instructors, advisers, fellow students and other participants within the STEM fields who may not be sufficiently fostering the sense of belonging and/or mentorship that (researchers) Dennehy and Dasgupta describe as being critical components of undergraduate women’s retention.”

Because society continues to stereotype STEM fields as masculine, Karalis Noel writes, 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.

To eliminate this harassment and also reverse the trend of women switching out of STEM fields, Karalis Noel recommends fostering positive, affirming experiences early in students’ academic careers that will reverse the effects of being isolated and unwanted.

She says the issue is no longer about recruiting women into STEM fields, but retaining them and ensuring they experience a sense of belonging in their programs.

Other studies confirmed these results: that a critical element relating to retention is the sense of “belonging, self-efficacy and fit” with their chosen fields, according to Karalis Noel.

She points to a National Science Foundation interview with University of Massachusetts researcher Nilanjana Dasgupta, in which Dasgupta said: “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,” Dasgupta said in the interview. “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.”

This belonging often comes down to finding good mentoring relationships for women students in STEM. And, Karalis Noel says, the most crucial ingredient to these mentoring relationships is finding good women mentors.

She cites a study in which researchers investigated the effect of peer mentoring on women’s experiences and retention in the engineering field.

In the study, 150 incoming women were each assigned a male mentor, female mentor or no mentor. At the end of their first year, 18% of the women who were assigned male mentors had dropped out of their programs or switched majors; 11% of women who were not assigned mentors either dropped out of school or switched their major. But all the women who were assigned female mentors remained in the engineering program they initially enrolled in.

“If we are going to have enough women available to mentor, then we need more students who are going into the field so they can be mentors,” Karalis Noel says.

“It needs to be this constantly increasing process. Because when there are so few women in a mentoring position, compared to men, it’s less likely you can pair all those female students with female mentors.”