In STEM and Econ Majors, Large Gender Gap Persists

According to a Swarthmore Institutional Research compilation of the class of 2018, four different popular majors have a disproportionate amount of students identifying as men. These statistics do not come as a surprise to many female Swarthmore students in these fields. Many feel that it is intimidating to take classes in these majors because of the gender divide.

In the class of 2018, 40 students majored in mathematics; only 11 of them identified as women. In computer science there were 25 women graduates, making up 35.7 percent of the total 70 computer science majors. Economics was the most popular major with 84 total students; only 31 of whom were female. In response to The Phoenix’s request for data on racial diversity among majors, the college has said that they do not collect race demographics.

This gender gap has left many students who do not identify as male feeling out of place in STEM classes.

I have felt out of place in my math classes since freshman year, and I still do, because of the gender ratios. It seems like such a little thing now, but I remember being in Math 28 [honors linear] my freshman spring, and I wouldn’t wear dresses or skirts to class because I didn’t want to call attention to myself or to what was making me feel out of place. On the track I was on in math until after Math 35, there were only ever three other girls in my math classes,” Emily Barranca ’19, a senior mathematics and computer science double major, said.

The data reflect a larger nationwide gender gap in certain STEM fields. By comparison, 20 percent of Harvard’s math majors do not identify as male. Other elite institutions also have this gap with 28 percent at MIT, 26 percent at Yale, and 15 percent at Brown.

Computer science lecturer Sara “Scout” Sinclair believes that this represents a lingering notion in our society of which fields are appropriate for women.

“For many decades our society has viewed computing as a masculine thing, and children have been socialized accordingly. In the earliest days of computing, it was considered ‘women’s work’ maybe because it involved typing, and only secretaries typed but that changed somewhere in the 60s and 70s,” Sinclair wrote in an email.

Economics Professor Amanda Bayer has researched this gap, as well as strategies to close it. She believes diversity is vital to enhance the field of economics because there will be more unique perspectives and diverse schools of thought.

“The economics profession includes disproportionately few women and members of historically underrepresented racial and ethnic minority groups, relative both to the overall population and to other academic disciplines. The lack of diversity negatively affects the discipline, constraining both the range of issues addressed and the capacity to understand familiar issues from new and innovative perspectives,” Bayer said.

The college has created several “W+” field specific groups to help make female and non-binary students feel more welcomed and supported in these male-dominated fields. Many female and non-binary students find these programs incredibly welcoming and a great support system.

“I think it’s really cool they have a support system where all women can come,” Ayaka Yorihiro ’20, a CS 21 Ninja, said. “It’s harder for women to accept that they are really good at CS and to realize that they are at the same level as men, even though they feel inferior.”

Barranca echoed that statement, saying that the W+ groups have been integral to her experience in these departments.

“The student-run W+ groups have really helped me to surround myself with positive, like-minded, and supportive people who have experienced and are experiencing the same things I am.”

According to Barranca, there is a lot of pressure on her as one of the few female mathematics majors. She has learned that she needed to balance out other people’s expectations and assumptions.

“I also spent a long time resenting that I would never just feel like a mathematician; I was always going to feel like a female mathematician,” said Barranca. “But part of me has learned that it’s really important that I don’t ignore this huge part of my identity. I’m going to be a female mathematician because I identify as female, and I’m going to be a mathematician, and I shouldn’t deny that, but being female has nothing to do with my career prospects and ambitions.”

Bayer has been working with the Federal Reserve System to come up with a national plan that aims to address the lack of racial and gender diversity in economics. She notes that the Swarthmore economics department is actively working to change this gap.

“Our department is piloting a new peer-support program for introductory economics this year. Professor O’Connell, our department chair, has been instrumental in getting the program up and running, and colleagues around the college have been really helpful as well,” said Bayer.

The program is modeled after different support systems such as the computer science department’s Ninja program and the math department’s Pi-rate program, and aims to offer more resources to first-year students.

“Our program selects and trains awesome student economists to serve as Visible Hands in Economics who assist Econ 1 students in section-specific clinics and in weekly study halls. The study halls offer a welcoming environment for students to do homework and aim to promote community-building among women and underrepresented minority students in economics,” said Bayer.

All W+ groups are registered on the Swarthmore clubs page and welcome new members throughout the year.

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