Academic Advising Resources


Gender Matters in Advising STEM Majors!

Craig M. McGill and Donna L. Woudenberg


Careers in the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) fields have long been considered to be men’s domain and continue to be male-dominated. While making great strides in areas such as the Biological Sciences, women continue to be under-represented and marginalized in others such as Chemistry, Engineering, Physics, and Computer Science (Hill, et al., 2010).

Academic advisors in the STEM disciplines are on the “front lines”  and must be well aware of the implications of these male-dominated arenas and how the climate impacts both female and male advisees. When we are conscientious of gender issues, advisors can work to promote diversity and help both men and women navigate gendered attitudes and experiences. This article will explore issues of recruitment and retention of women in STEM disciplines and outline some recommendations for academic advisors working with students in STEM majors.

Why does Gender in STEM areas matter?

First, it is important to distinguish gender as a construct independent of sex. According to the Central European Center for Women and Youth in Science (2012), sex is defined as binary physical anatomy whereas gender “refers to the social differences between women and men that have been learned, are changeable over time, and have wide variations both within and between cultures” (p. 6). In separating gender from anatomical sex, a shift has taken place “from talking about sex to understanding gender signals that biology or anatomy is not a destiny, as it was traditionally held” (CEC-WYS, 2012, p.6). It is the traditional definitions with regard to science and gender–-and the implications for both men and women–-that we  discuss and challenge in this paper.

Science is gendered in at least two ways. First, from the beginning of the Scientific Revolution (roughly 1500-1700 A.D.), the structure and language of science have been masculine (CEC-WYS, 2012; Kourany, 1998; Lederman & Bartsch, 2001; Merchant, 2001). During this period, the Earth, the universe and time changed from being cyclical and rhythmic to linear and mechanistic; in this worldview, the laws of nature were defined by mathematics, a very objective enterprise (Lederman & Bartsch, 2001). Objectivity, detachment, and impartiality became foundations of the scientific method, ideals equated with masculinity. At the same time, the Earth changed from a non-gendered entity to a female entity (Mother Earth, Mother Nature), and the newly conceived Western science sought from the start to dominate a nature conceived of as feminine, with a method characterized by disinterestedness and emotional detachment, aggression and competition (Kourany, 1998; Merchant, 2001). Men controlled this new science, and women were systematically excluded from scientific education and research until modern times. This has “robbed science of much of its pool of available talent and thus much of its progress” (Kourany, 1998, p. 235).

Consequently, science has been male-dominated for centuries. While women have made significant progress during the last century, they are still in the minority in most disciplines and the numbers of women involved in STEM disciplines tend to decrease as seniority/tenure increase (Hill, et al., 2010). Despite the fact that numbers of males and females participating in and excelling at science are roughly equal throughout primary and secondary school, fewer women enter STEM majors in college, and fewer still graduate with a STEM degree. The pattern continues as lower percentages of women pursue advanced degrees in STEM areas and fewer yet obtain jobs in STEM areas. Finally, when looking at the upper ranks of advancement in STEM, broadly speaking, the percentage of women—while improving—is very low.

What is the reason for the loss of female talent? The analogy of a leaking pipeline has been used to describe the phenomenon (Hill, et al., 2010; Holmes & O’Connell, 2005) and research has oft-sought to answer the question of why there are so few women in STEM. A recent study funded by the National Science Foundation (Hill, et al., 2010) has been pivotal to this exploration, providing a structured exploration of science and gender in primary and secondary schools, the college experience and workplace. The report draws on a wide body of research, citing some major recent studies that have gendered implications for the science world. The report is based on three primary assumptions: 1) girls’ achievements and interest in math and science are shaped by the environment around them, not solely by biological factors; 2) small changes can make a big difference in attracting and retaining women (i.e. informed and supportive advisors and departmental cultural changes); and 3) bias and stereotype threat limit women’s progress in STEM fields. Knowledge of the ways in which myths, stereotypes, and biases perpetuate men’s domination in STEM fields can help to defy the stereotypes that boys and men are mathematically superior and innately better suited to STEM fields and that girls and women lack interest in STEM areas. Two domains will help to illustrate: stereotype threat and implicit bias.

Stereotype threat is the phenomena individuals from an underprivileged group may experience when they have anxiety about fulfilling negative stereotypes about that group (Hill, et al., 2010). A study by Spencer et al (1999) illustrates how stereotype threat affects math scores on timed tests: when women are told that men typically receive higher scores on timed math tests, they tend to receive lower scores, a self-fulfilling prophecy; when they are not scripted with this information, they score as high as the men do (pages 21-22). Thus, if women fall into the cultural myth that men are intrinsically more suited for the STEM areas, it negatively impacts their performance (Buck et al., 2008).

Implicit bias is the notion that everyone has deeply held beliefs that inform their actions and decisions. We may not be willing to share with others what our implicit biases are and more fundamentally, may not even be aware that we harbor them. Banaji observes, “I think of [implicit biases] as the thumbprint of the culture on our minds. Human beings have the ability to learn to associate two things together very quickly—that is innate. What we teach ourselves, what we choose to associate is up to us” (Hill, et al., 2010, p. 78). It is important to learn about acknowledging implicit bias because if a person is aware of these biases, it is possible for them to change if they so choose.

The Role of Academic Advisors

Perceptions of women’s inability to succeed—despite studies that clearly demonstrate they can not only succeed, but thrive—negatively affect college women’s decisions to stay with a STEM major. Because college is the life-stage at which we first start losing women in the STEM areas, academic advisors have the opportunity to be on the forefront of working to keep talented women in STEM degree programs. Moreover, it is equally important for college men to learn about attitudes, stereotypes and implicit biases as they prepare to enter STEM fields working alongside, and for, women. Thus, advisors are in the unique position to both inform and change attitudes about women in STEM areas.

The following recommendations have been adapted from Hill, et al., (2010) and tailored towards best practices for academic advisors and those tasked with student recruitment:

  • Encourage women to consider a STEM major when participating in high school college fairs or conducting campus visits. A talented female student may not have been given support in her primary and secondary education and therefore, will probably be less likely than a man to consider a STEM major. Summer camps may also be a possibility to target young women interested in STEM areas.
  • Send inclusive messages. For the sake of diversity, it is important that both men and women should see images of successful women working in STEM areas. The sooner these images are introduced in students’ academic careers the better. Students should experience positive gendered aspects of science during their undergraduate years before entering the workforce where gender bias may still be practiced.
  • Speak with faculty about stereotype threat and benefits of growth mindset. Make sure faculty are aware of the gender biases that still exist in the STEM fields. Consider the work of Carol Dweck (2006), who points to our cultural rhetorical framing of the word “struggle”… which is considered to be necessarily a negative thing. Instead, Dweck encourages us to embrace the word, celebrating its challenges and possibilities for growth. She explicates the difference between a “Growth mindset”, which promotes achievement and persistence in STEM areas, verses a “Fixed mindset”, which hinders and blocks success (Hill, et al., 2010, page 30). Importantly, intellectual skills are not inherent to either men or women and in many cases, can be acquired. Faculty teaching about stereotype threat and growth mindsets can make real, tangible, and positive differences.
  • Advocate for the Importance of Female Role Models. Identify several women who can serve as mentors for both male and female students. This is a critical component for countering stereotype threat: both men and women should be exposed to women who have succeeded in STEM areas. In addition, stereotype threat and its effects specifically must be addressed so that faculty and students are aware that it still exists.
  • Help students keep the bigger picture in mind. In the STEM areas especially, it is common that  average test scores are very low. Since many STEM students did well in high school, the adjustment to college may be difficult. This test score disconnect may have particular implications for women who face stereotype threat already. While advisors should not give students an inflated view, it is equally important not to let them lose hope. Men may find it easier to persist after earning low test scores, but women often must be supported. When advisors help women see the bigger picture and understand expectations female retention may increase.
  • Find ways to proactively support female STEM majors. Support possibilities could include becoming a club advisor for groups focusing on gender issues in STEM fields and raising awareness about the diversity within STEM majors. Advisors can facilitate forums for discussion of gender issues and sponsor events to help with integration. Something as simple as making the student lounge welcoming and inviting can make a big difference.
  • Counter bias and raise awareness. Perhaps the most important way to make a difference is to counter bias directly when it is confronted. Students may be unaware anything is wrong with their thinking and may need a polite nudge. Additionally, we need to prepare our students for the world once they graduate since one of the primary places where women face bias is in the STEM workplace. Studies have shown that women in the workplace are viewed either as competent or likable, but not both (Heilman et al, 2004, page 426). Advisors should prepare both male and female students with the tools needed to face and counter this bias.
  • Learn about our own biases. Although it may be difficult to accept, we all have implicit biases of which we may or may not be aware…but the more we know, the more we can change and grow.  Harvard University maintains a website for a multi-university research collaboration called “Project Implicit.” Led by the team of Tony Greenwald ( University of Washington ), Mahzarin Banaji ( Harvard University), and Brian Nosek ( University of Virginia ), researchershave designed tests to gauge our biases. Hill, Corbett, and St. Rose (2010) state, “Educators can look at the effect their biases have on their teaching, advising, and evaluation of students and can work to create an environment in the classroom that counters gender-science stereotypes” (p. 79). As advisors, we can share these tests with our students so that they can learn from their biases, as well.  The tests can be found at: (IAT, 2012).

Advocating for equal treatment and representation of women in the STEM areas is a long battle. When we introduce students to ideas early in their early collegiate academic careers, we can create the conditions for change. Without our efforts, the number of women pursuing STEM-related degrees (and being retained in these careers) decreases, reinforcing the dominant paradigm. We must be more sensitive to this paradigm if we are to increase diversity of STEM participants, represent other points of view, increase the pool of talent, and ultimately, influence the progress of science.

Craig M. McGill

Academic Advisor, English
Florida International University

Donna L. Woudenberg

Lecturer, Women's & Gender Studies

University of Nebraska-Lincoln


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CEC-WYS (Central European Center for Women and Youth in Science).  2 May 2012. Why Gendered Science Matters: How to Include Gender Dimensions Into Research Projects.  Accessed online from:

Dweck, C. (2006). Is math a gift? Beliefs that put females at risk. In S. Ceci & W. Williams

(Eds.),  Why aren’t more women in science? Top researchers debate the evidence  (p. 47–55). Washington DC: American Psychological Association.

Heilman, M. E., Wallen, A. S., Fuchs, D., & Tamkins, M. M. (2004). Penalties for success:  Reaction to women who succeed in male gender-typed tasks. Journal of Applied Psychology, 89 (3), 416–27.

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Holmes, M. A. and  O’Connell S.  (2003). Where are the Women Geoscience Professors ? Report on the NSF/AWG Foundation Sponsored Workshop. Washington, DC: Association for Women Geoscientists.

IAT (Implicit Association Test).  2 May 2012.  Project Implicit; Harvard University.  Accessed online from:

Kourany, J. A. (1998). A new program for philosophy of science, in many voices. In J. A. Kourany, Ed. Philosophy in a Feminist Voice: Critiques and Reconstructions.  New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Lederman, M. and Bartsch, I. (2001). Creating androcentric science. In M. Lederman and I. Bartsch, Eds. The Gender and Science Reader. London and New York: Routledge.

Merchant, C. (2001). Dominion over nature. In M. Lederman and I. Bartsch, Eds. The Gender and Science Reader. London and New York: Routledge.

Spencer, S. J., Steele, C. M., & Quinn, D. M. (1999 ). Stereotype threat and women’s math

performance. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 35 (1), 4–28.

Cite this using APA style as:

McGill, C. M., and Woudenberg, D. L., (2012, June).Gender matters in STEM majors!.Retrieved from the NACADA Clearinghouse of Academic Advising Resources website:

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