The pictures from NASA look great: Four women and four men make up the agency’s latest astronaut class. Unfortunately, this gender parity remains elusive in most science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) workplaces. Women make up nearly 50% of the wider workforce yet hold fewer than 25% of all jobs in STEM fields.
But it’s not just a question of parity. Perhaps Nobel Prize-winning scientist Carol Greider put it best when she said, “It’s very important to have more voices at the table, not just out of fairness for certain people but because, really, the future depends on being able to bring as much brain power to as many issues as we can.”
How do we get to that future? We have to increase women’s access to STEM training and careers. The American Association of University Women’s new research report, Women in Community Colleges: Access to Success, found that community colleges can be a critical stepping stone in that process. According to the report, women who eventually obtain bachelor’s or master’s degrees in STEM are more likely than men to attend community college at some point.
In fact, Eileen Collins, the first woman to command a space shuttle, earned her associate degree in mathematics at Corning Community College in New York. According to the National Women’s Hall of Fame, Collins’ family struggled to make ends meet, so she worked to put herself through community college while taking flying lessons.
Community colleges can help women overcome barriers, such as cost, that they face in getting any degree, but these institutions also help women conquer obstacles, like stereotypes, specific to pursuing male-dominated STEM fields.
One California program is designed to counteract such stereotypes. Schools are trying to help women see themselves as mathematicians, engineers or auto mechanics. The effort actively recruits and supports community college women by using promotional materials featuring women in technology and websites that include information about salaries, job prospects and successful women in STEM programs at the schools. Since implementing the outreach program, the City College of San Francisco has seen a 14% increase in women’s enrollment in computer networking and information technology.
The success of the California program and others like it demonstrates that recruitment and support go a long way to counteract gender stereotypes and other barriers to women entering and succeeding in STEM fields. When you consider that more women attend community colleges than either public or private four-year universities and that community colleges have the largest pool of undergraduate women to tap for STEM, you can understand why it’s necessary to take a closer look at programs that are working there.
Community colleges are an important STEM training ground, especially because of their accessibility and affordability. It’s time for community colleges to step up their recruitment and support programs to maximize their potential in building the STEM workforce. We need more programs like the one in California, and we need increased federal investment in these efforts. Let’s do it for the sake of both gender equity and a bigger, better pool of skilled STEM workers to fuel U.S. prosperity.
Linda D. Hallman is executive director of American Association of University Women.
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