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Women pursuing science, math-related degrees up at regent schools

BY ASMAA ELKEURTI | MARCH 20, 2012 6:30 AM

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Sex disparities in math and science fields are more complex than they first appear, higher education officials say.

The rate at which females enter science, technology, engineering, and math — known collectively as "STEM" fields — is increasing at what some officials call a "snail's pace," but members of the governor's STEM advisory council aim to accelerate the process.

"We have had great interest in equalizing STEM opportunities by gender and by racial diversity," said Jeff Weld, 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."

He said the Governor's Office has been focusing on erasing gender-based stereotypes in math and science and making STEM fields more appealing 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."

According to the Iowa Math & Science Education Partnership, state Board of Regent schools' rates for women in STEM-related graduate programs have increased from 478 degrees awarded in 2000 to 667 in 2008.

James Brown, the executive director of the STEM Education Coalition , said the lack of women and other minority demographics in science and math fields is a multifaceted problem with no simple solution.

"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," Brown said. "If brain power is distributed equally through the population — and I think it is, regardless of demographic — you have to draw from all parts of the population, whether it's for STEM fields or other areas."

Officials in STEM fields should look to students of all demographics in order to maintain a talented workforce.

"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," he said.

Catherine Whiting, a fourth-year UI graduate student studying theoretical physics, said she has rarely been judged directly based on her sex.

"If I feel any inequality, it's with people who aren't physicists. A construction worker once thought I was the secretary," she said. "That's the only time I feel that my gender would play a role."

However, she said, the lack of female peers did lead to some social difficulties.

"When I was first starting out, there weren't a whole lot of women in the grad program, and it's hard to connect with the guys," she said. "The social aspect was also affected by my gender."


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