Iowa Regent Schools Show Women Earning More STEM Degrees

Iowa Regent Schools Show Women Earning More STEM Degrees
Graduate degrees in STEM are not frequently earned by women, but Iowa’s governor is trying to change that.

Recently, there has been a lot of scrutiny over STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) degrees, and why more women aren't earning degrees in these fields. Studies have shown that men are the primary graduates in these fields. Higher education officials have now amended some of the studies, as the differences between men and women are not as distinct as they first appeared in STEM fields.

The rate at which women are getting into STEM fields is much slower than average, but Iowa governor wants to change that. He believes that a new advisory council can improve the process and make it more accelerated, allowing women to enter STEM careers faster than before.

"We have had great interest in equalizing STEM opportunities by gender and by racial diversity," said Jeff Weld, who is the executive director of the governor's advisory council. "The last three years, we've had some modest initiatives, and I'm excited by the governor's work."

Weld also stated that the governor's office has been looking to erase gender-based stereotypes in math and science, which will help make these fields appeal more to women.

"We want to help them teach in ways that welcome men and women and are equally honoring contributions in the classroom," Weld said. "The awful things that teachers have been known to do is say, 'You're good at math for a girl.' We want to help people avoid such faux pas."

The Iowa Math and Science Education Partnership have shown that the Board of Regent schools' rates for women in STEM-related graduate programs is increasing from 478 degrees awarded in 2000 to 667 in 2008. Those numbers are promising to the governor's advisory council who has been working to clean up the STEM degree programs from gender bias.

The executive director of the STEM Education Coalition is James Brown. He stated that the lack of women and other minority demographics in science and math fields is a bigger problem with many variations and no simple solution. After all, how could it be simple since there are many colleges with STEM degree programs and not a task force that is specifically designed to address the issues at every school.

"People want to make this a one-dimensional issue, like it's a factor of mainly aptitude or mainly biases or mainly culture, but the reality is there's no one single factor," stated Brown. "If brain power is distributed equally through the population – and I think that it is, regardless of demographic—you have to draw from all parts of the population, whether it's for STEM or other areas."

So that means that the advisory council should also take an interest into other minorities that are not well represented in the STEM programs across Iowa. That has led officials to address these minorities as well and maintain a balanced workforce agenda to getting the brightest students into the right programs.

"If you're trying to get more of our brightest students in our STEM fields, so they can be future innovators, you have to make sure that you're drawing from all backgrounds," said Brown.

It hasn't been easy for female students in STEM graduate degree programs. One woman, a fourth year University of Iowa graduate student in theoretical physics, said that she was once asked if she was the secretary, but that the remark came from someone who wasn't a fellow physicist working at the job site. For the advisory council, the problem is a much bigger issue as Brown suggested, and there must be more ideas on how to reach women and get them to feel comfortable in these degree programs.