How Three Colleges Work to Close the STEM Gender Gap

  The STEM gender gap shows signs of closing. Carnegie Mellon University recently noted that 48.5% of the students enrolled in its School of Computer Science for 2016 are women; close behind, the university’s 2016 College of Engineering makeup is 43.3% women. Earlier this year, Dartmouth University also made history by graduating more women than […]

BY Terri Williams

How Three Colleges Work to Close the STEM Gender Gap


The STEM gender gap shows signs of closing. Carnegie Mellon University recently noted that 48.5% of the students enrolled in its School of Computer Science for 2016 are women; close behind, the university’s 2016 College of Engineering makeup is 43.3% women.

Earlier this year, Dartmouth University also made history by graduating more women than men engineers. But Carnegie Mellon and Dartmouth aren’t the only schools committed to closing the STEM gender gap. GoodCall spoke with deans and program directors at three schools about their efforts to achieve gender parity in computer & information science, and engineering.

Northeastern University’s plan to close STEM gender gap

Carla Brodley, dean of the College of Computer and Information Science at Northeastern, recently addressed the school’s goal of achieving a 50% male/50% female balance in both undergraduate and master’s programs by 2021. “Currently, 26 percent of our undergraduate students and 33 percent of our graduate students are women, and those percentages have increased over the past several years,” she says.

But Brodley adds that the goal isn’t just to enroll more women: “We also want to engage them in a way that shows them that pairing computer science with their primary discipline of interest can lead to increased understanding of their own field and eventually to a wider option of career opportunities.”

While it’s not realistic to make all students take computer science, Brodley says the goal is to make it attractive and present it through a variety of options, such as combined majors, “meaningful minors,” and “paired courses.”

She explains further: “At the undergraduate level, we’ve developed 26 combined majors with social sciences and humanities, arts, media, and design, in addition to combined majors with science and engineering.” These combined majors are unlike traditional combined majors because they include more in-depth study.

“The ‘meaningful minor’ program includes five classes — two required computer science introductory courses, two electives within computer science, and one course from the student’s major college,” Brodley says. So how would these computer science classes complement a student’s major? She explains that advisers can help students make the right choice. “For example, a student majoring in English might be interested in natural language understanding and a student in biology might be interested in computational biology for their elective.”

Tufts University also has a plan

Karen Panetta, associate dean for graduate education at Tufts University, is an IEEE Fellow and IEEE Women in Engineering Magazine editor in chief. The university’s graduate programs have some of the highest enrollments of women in the country, and Panetta tells GoodCall that the successes closing the STEM gender gap at Tufts and other schools are the result of concentrated recruiting and retention.

Panetta says role models and outstanding faculty on the undergraduate level will determine whether women students pursue STEM in graduate school. “Female students seeing other successful women faculty, who are respected by their peers, tend to stay and consider continuing on into graduate research.” She says schools cannot expect women faculty to be solely responsible for mentorship – especially if they don’t have many female faculty.

“Good mentorship for women means providing them the opportunities and showing the ‘big picture’ impact their work can have on society,” Panetta says, adding that there must be ways for women students to get help when they have doubts and insecurities. “Dealing with failure is another important aspect; if women don’t think they are good enough or are struggling, they think the discipline is not the right fit for them.” Case in point, recent research reveals Calculus I causes some women students to transfer out of STEM, because they’re not confident in their advanced math ability.

Instead, she says it’s important for students to understand that experimentation and practice are a natural part of learning, especially in STEM fields. “Recognizing why your experiments or approaches failed is part of the process; it’s not something that is an indicator of an individual’s ability to succeed in the discipline, which is counter intuitive to how our K-12 curriculum is typically taught,” Panetta says.

The importance of closing the STEM gender gap cannot be overstated. “Schools that have a higher number of females enrolled in the discipline tend to attract more future female applicants,” Panetta explains, noting her experience at Tufts has shown this to be true.

“Students talk and social media plays a huge role in influencing other young people; when students see or interact with a student who enjoyed their program, professors and experience at an institution, they are role models influencing others.” But the reverse is also true. When women students are not given support, have bad encounters, and end up leaving the program, they tend to share those experiences as well. “Accepting students into the discipline is not enough. There has to be built in support mechanisms where students can form cohorts and get help integrating into the program and learning how to seek out help and resources from everything on how to write reports, conduct research or give a presentation.”

Tufts has programs such as BEST – the acronym stands for Bridging Engineering Success at Tufts – and was awarded a National Science Foundation grant for Creating Future Female Engineering Leaders.

Outreach efforts include STEM Ambassadors who go into local high schools to promote the notion that women and underrepresented students can excel in science and engineering. One of the school’s professors, Laney Strange (a former senior software engineer at hosts 100 Girls of Code workshops to get high school age girls interested in computer science.

Sweet Briar College makes its path

Stephen R. Wassell, Department of Mathematical Sciences, computer science program director, discusses how the small women’s college in Virginia promotes STEM education. While Sweet Briar isn’t closing a gap in the classroom, the women it educates will help to close the STEM gender gap in the workplace.

Wassell tells GoodCall that in January 2016, Sweet Briar College became the first women’s college to be selected as a BRAID affiliate, even though the school is still in the process of developing its computer science program. BRAID is an acronym for a Building, Recruiting And Inclusion for Diversity initiative that aims to increase the presence of women and other minorities in computer science.

“A major factor is that, while grounded in the liberal arts, Sweet Briar has a strong tradition in STEM education and is one of only two women’s colleges in the country to offer an ABET-accredited engineering degree.” Sweet Briar is also known for producing such graduates as Leah Busque, who founded and is the executive chairwoman of the online company TaskRabbit.

Through the BRAID affiliation, Wassell says Sweet Briar is able to network with other member schools and glean information on their diversity efforts. “The relationship also solidified the college’s decision to restart the computer science major – giving more young women more options for pursuing a career they might not otherwise choose.”

To ensure that the school’s program is relevant, Sweet Briar has sent representatives to meet with leading tech companies in Silicon Valley. “For example, Google has been partnering with Sweet Briar faculty on the new computer science curriculum, which will include two semesters of Python, a semester of Java, and a semester using C/C++; upper level electives will include computer security, computer vision, and data science.”

As a small, residential liberal arts school, Wassell notes that students are exposed to a different type of experience. “Our students get lots of individualized attention, research and leadership opportunities, internships, and professors who are invested in their futures.”