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  • Examining Department Climate for Women in Engineering:The Role of STEM Interventions
  • Blanca E. Rincón (bio) and Casey E. George-Jackson (bio)

Women comprise over half of the total undergraduate population in the United States (National Center for Education Statistics, 2014), yet remain underrepresented in a number of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields (National Science Foundation [NSF], 2014). Although women have steadily increased their representation in STEM fields like agricultural and biological sciences since the mid-1960s (NSF, 2015), women’s share of bachelor’s degrees in engineering peaked at 20% in 2000 (NSF, 2014). The lack of growth in women’s engineering degree attainment continues despite initiatives to recruit and retain traditionally underrepresented students in engineering.

Research in STEM education has historically focused on individual-level factors to explain students’ decisions to enter and persist within STEM, such as women’s pre-college academic preparation (Ethington, 1988; Trusty, 2002). While such studies are helpful in understanding how students’ participation in high school math and science courses differentially impact patterns in postsecondary STEM enrollment and degree completion, these approaches fail to capture structural factors, such as the impact of negative environments (in the classroom and on campus), on students’ entry, persistence, and degree attainment in STEM.

In a study of campus climate, Rankin and Reason (2005) examined how different students experienced different climates on the same campus and found that, when compared to males, female students reported higher rates of gender harassment, defined as “any offensive, hostile, or intimidating conduct that interferes unreasonably with one’s ability to work or learn on campus” (p. 50). Women’s negative experiences within institutional spaces create “chilly” or even hostile climates, often magnified in male-dominated STEM fields, where there is little gender diversity and there is a perception that women are unable to “do science” (Rolin, 2008). Rolin (2008) argues that this chilly climate is embedded in the curriculum, in classroom interactions, and within the culture of STEM departments. As the culture of STEM has long been perceived as a masculine (and White) domain, the culture of departments functions as a means of social exclusion by limiting who feels welcomed (Tate & Linn, 2005). While climate is undeniably felt, these perceptions have real consequences for student experiences and outcomes.

Hurtado, Clayton-Pederson, Allen, and Milem (1998) provide a framework to understand how the historical legacy, structural diversity, and psychological and behavioral dimensions of an institutional context shape how students experience the [End Page 742] campus racial climate. While the campus racial climate framework privileges race within the campus context, higher education scholars have extended the Hurtado et al. framework beyond race (Renn & Reason, 2013) and the institution (Rincón & George-Jackson, 2012). Building upon this line of inquiry, we draw attention to women’s experience with departmental climates, as a microcosm of the larger institution, and focus on behavioral dimensions (the actual interactions between and among different groups) and psychological dimensions (isolation and sense of belonging).

The peer networks found in STEM intervention programs (SIPs)—supplemental programs offered by colleges and universities to attract, retain, and support traditionally underrepresented students—may serve as a critical source of social support and may encourage a sense of belonging for female students, including women of color who experience cultural incongruence in STEM (Tate & Linn, 2005). Indeed, a recent study of SIPs found that administrators of gender-focused engineering interventions saw their programs as mitigating the chilly climate for female students by facilitating their transition from high school to college, providing academic and social support, and creating a sense of community (Rincón & George-Jackson, 2012).

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Table 1.


a White, not Hispanic is the reference category.

Overall, the empirical research on climate [End Page 743] in STEM suggests that female students encounter unwelcoming spaces within fields dominated by White males, which may hinder their educational development. While some studies have captured the impact of these negative climates, few researchers have sought to understand the factors that may contribute to or reduce a student’s perceived negative climate. In response to these limitations in the current literature, we investigated how issues of climate in engineering may be...


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