Female applied science, math majors remain underrepresented

Though the College only began admitting women in 1970, the institution has made many strides in encouraging women to participate in equal numbers as men in all academic areas, especially areas in which women have been most underrepresented across the country, like math and science. Offering introductory level classes taught by female professors in the sciences has been key in encouraging female students at the College to not only take courses in math and science, but to also pursue majors in these fields. It wasn’t until 1998 that the chemistry department first tenured a female professor, followed by the computer science department in 1999, the physics department in 2000 and the geosciences department in 2001.

The College has had great success hiring esteemed female faculty in math and science departments. Recently, an increase in demand for female faculty at larger research institutions has made it more difficult for smaller liberal arts colleges to attract this same set of faculty. “I believe that the Group One research universities [which typically includes large research universities] are hiring more women in math than they used to, which is great,” Professor of Mathematics Susan Loepp said. “But I believe that one of the unintended consequences is that it has made it more difficult for liberal arts colleges to hire women. Happily, we have been having lots of success on that front here at Williams. Our last four tenure-track hires (including both math and stat) have all been women.”

Proportions of Female Science Majors

While there have been significant increases in the number of female faculty in the math and science departments, the percentage of female majors in these fields has largely remained unchanged at the College, according to statistics obtained from the registrar. From 2004 to 2008, 42 percent of Div. III majors were female, and this percentage only very slightly increased to 43 percent from 2009 to 2013. This is reflected in the fact that the math and physics departments have not seen a large change in the percentage of women majors. However, departments such as computer science are gaining traction with female students. While there were only 17 female computer science majors from 2004 to 2013 compared to 115 male majors, the Class of 2015 currently counts 11 female majors and 27 male majors.

One field of science that has not experienced a similarly disproportionate ratio of male to female majors is biology. From 2004 to 2013, a striking 62 percent of biology majors were women. Similarly, 48 percent of chemistry majors were women from 2004 to 2013. “I have no good answer as to why there are disproportionately many women studying biology,” Professor of Biology Heather Williams said. “I do think, however, that there is a strong cultural component contributing to the large number of women in biology. Where there are already so many women, others may feel more comfortable, leading to a positive feedback effect, with more women majors leading to still more women majors.”

Comparison to National Averages

The percentage of women graduating with degrees in biology and chemistry, as well as the lower percentages in math and other sciences, at the College are in line with national averages. Nationally in 2008, about 20 percent of bachelor’s degrees in physics, computer science and engineering were earned by women, compared to 18 percent of physics degrees and 13 percent of computer science degrees from 2004 to 2013 at the College (National Science Foundation, 2008). However, with 29 percent of computer science majors being earned by female students in the Class of 2015, this department has seen a drastic increase in the number of women.

“I think we want to at least keep up with national averages, but in a lot of fields where the national averages are pretty discouraging, like my field [physics] or computer science, we’d certainly like to do better than that,” Dean Bolton said. “Your first guess would be that maybe things should be 50-50, but maybe not. Maybe people choose differently. I think we’re more convicted about individuals having the choices that make the most sense to them rather than for a particular numerical outcome. That said, I don’t think there’s any argument that there should only be 10 percent of physicists who are women. Whether 40 percent or 60 percent is the right number, I don’t know. That really depends on how people want to shape their professional lives going forward.”

Efforts to Attract Female Science Majors

The College has made various efforts to encourage women to earn majors in the fields of math and science. Most recently, the College has announced its plan to introduce a new undergraduate fellowship called the Clare Boothe Luce Scholar Program. The fellowship will grant funding for two summers of paid research to eight sophomore women majoring in math, statistics, computer science, physics, astronomy or geosciences. The program is intended to encourage women to pursue research in the physical sciences and to potentially go on to graduate school in these fields. “We know that early research experiences are important for recruitment and retention of underrepresented students broadly, including women in certain fields,” Bolton said.

On a more individual level, professors work to encourage female students to continue to study math and science. Loepp spoke about her efforts to talk one-on-one to students, both male and female, who she believes could be successful math majors. “If there is a student who I think is good at math, but doesn’t seem to think so him/herself, then I try to pull him/her aside to talk about the possibility of majoring in math,” she said. “I’ll say something like, ‘You would be a strong math major. You shouldn’t major in math if you don’t like math. But you are definitely good enough to major in math.’ I have these conversations with both men and women students, but it might be true that, for whatever reason, I end up having them a bit more with women.”

Many departments make similar efforts to encourage women in these fields. “Some departments have mentoring set up with older students and younger students, some departments have women faculty meeting with younger women students before

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they major and then within the major as they prepare for graduate school,” Bolton said. “It’s really individual among particular departments because the differences in representation are very different between different departments.”

The College tries to ensure all students begin in math and science courses that meet their abilities. “We also try to address any discouragements that might have happened to them before they got to the College, so that people will have a second chance to look at what fields might be most exciting to them,” Bolton said. “In introductory classes, we often hear from people who say, ‘I know I’m not very good at this; I learned that from my high school teacher.’ Part of what we want to do is make sure that students are closer to a level playing field when they enter our courses and really have the full breadth of opportunities available to them.”

One of the main draws of liberal arts education is that students are not only exposed to a breadth of subjects but are given the opportunity to major in any of them, regardless of previous experience. “One of the things that is important to us is not to have majors that are only accessible to people who already know that this is the thing they want to do with their lives,” Bolton said. “What you want to have is majors that are welcoming and work well for students who might be uncertain coming in or discouraged in their previous work in the field who then might discover that it’s something they really like. Structurally, that’s a very important thing. We know already, coming out of for example AP Physics courses, there are fewer women than men who think that they’re going to pursue physics. So you need to be making majors that are accessible to students who may not yet be sure what they want to major in.”