The Columns

Grant Aims to Keep Women in Math and Science

— by on March 26th, 2010

Despite efforts to decrease the gap between women and men in math and science, men continue to outnumber women in those fields, says Sara Sprenkle, assistant professor of computer science at Washington and Lee University.

“Even though more women than men go to college, fewer women than men pursue degrees in science and math. For example, women earn only 20 percent of bachelor’s degrees in physics, engineering, and computer science,” said Sprenkle. “The ratio of women continues to decline through graduate school and in professions.”

At W&L, 196 out of 335 science majors are women (both figures include students with more than one major). Although psychology is dominated by women (88 percent), smaller majors have fewer women-computer science has 24 percent and physics has 25 percent.

A 2010 ACS-Mellon Faculty Renewal grant for “On Solid Ground: Building the Foundation for Women Faculty and Students in Math and Science,” will support the development of a new project at W&L called Women in Math and Science (WIMS), which aims to give students more confidence and life skills to help retain them in these disciplines. The grant is shared with the University of Richmond which runs a parallel program.

George Carras, director of corporate and foundation relations at W&L, described the $7,490 grant as “modest, but its importance is great.”

WIMS has been created by Sprenkle and Katherine Crowley, assistant professor of mathematics. It will bring together women in all areas of science and math to create the critical mass recent research has shown to be important in encouraging them to stay in the sciences.

Research indicates that having an informal group of women science faculty and majors improves retention of women majors. While such a group in a single major may not be sustainable because of the major’s small size, a group that includes all the sciences and math can be effective.

WIMS will meet regularly to introduce students to faculty on a personal and professional level, meet women in the community pursuing careers in math and science, and discuss topics of interest such as the stereotype threat and the role of family in a career in science.

Although WIMS is new at W&L, the program started at the University of Richmond this academic year, and the two groups will work closely together with joint meetings and coordinated speakers. Other ideas include an outreach component such as a math workshop for faculty in math science and a “WIMS Day” for local middle-school students.

Already this year, Crowley, who is currently working in Sen. Al Franken’s office in Washington on an American Mathematical Society Congressional Fellowship, hosted a group of women science students from the University of Richmond to talk about her job and how creating government policies can support the sciences.