|WitsOn runs from Oct. 1 through Nov. 9.
Women (and men) pursuing STEM degrees may still register to participate in free, online mentoring. Learn more at https://piazza.com/witson.
Debra Lewis, a UC Berkeley Ph.D. graduate in mathematics, was en route to a Cornell University postdoc in theoretical and applied mechanics when she got a phone call from her mother: "It's not too late to change your mind and go to law school," her mother told her.
It's a story that Lewis — now a professor of mathematics at UC Santa Cruz — says typifies the kinds of social pressure that keep some women from pursuing careers in math and science.
A nationwide online mentoring program hopes to change that by connecting students who are pursuing STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) degrees with women leaders from academia and industry. Students and faculty from eight UC campuses are participating: UC Berkeley, UC Santa Cruz, UC Davis, UC Los Angeles, UC San Diego, UC Irvine, UC Riverside and UC Santa Barbara.
The program, Women in Technology Sharing Online (WitsOn), seeks to retain women pursuing degrees in traditionally male-dominant fields by building upon shared experiences of female mentors across the nation.
"This is really an experiment in bridging different networks from universities and creating one that is larger and more diverse," said Phil Sofer, vice president of operations at Piazza, the program's online hosting platform and sponsor along with Harvey Mudd College. "A lot of education takes place outside the classroom in ad hoc meetings with people that share common interests. We're replicating this on an Internet scale to reach more people."
Each week, high-profile lead mentors, including Cisco's Padma Warrior and Microsoft's Julie Larson-Green, and supporting mentors lead discussions around common themes, such as maintaining a work/life balance and finding a job, that affect women across STEM fields. Designed to mimic a roundtable discussion, the online sessions are driven by the students' interests and intend to encourage openness about personal experiences.
"I want to get a first-hand, honest opinion of what I should be doing to prepare and learn what paths these women chose to get to where they are," said Monique Windju, a second-year astrophysics major at UC Santa Cruz and WitsOn participant. "This [forum] opens the door and helps me be more comfortable talking to people about they do."
The STEM gender gap
Mentoring programs have emerged over the past decade to help close the gender gap that exists in professional and postsecondary levels of STEM fields.
Studies show that although women enter undergraduate programs with the same cognitive abilities and preparation as men, they are less likely than men to earn bachelor's degrees in a STEM major and pursue a career in a STEM field.
According to the most recent statistics from the National Science Board, women earned about half of all STEM bachelor's degrees in 2009, with the majority of degrees awarded in psychology, agricultural sciences, biological sciences, chemistry and social sciences. Men outpaced women in earning bachelor's degrees in engineering, computer sciences, mathematics and physics — a trend that has shown little change for the past 10 years.
A variety of factors contribute to the disparity, according to researchers: among them, a lack of self-confidence and self-esteem in the classroom, and a dearth of highly-visible role models.
"There's a lot of pressure from the usual social support structures — like friends and families — who will tell women, ‘I told you so' if they ever admit to struggling with difficulties," said Lewis. "They feel they have to be really exceptional in the classroom to prove the skeptics wrong, and lose a lot of confidence in the process."
Online mentoring potential
To boost women's confidence and, subsequently, their numbers in STEM fields, online programs like WitsOn provide an outlet for the pressures of the classroom and offer mentor opportunities that aren't hampered by bricks-and-mortar limitations.
"Without geographical constraints, [the students] can form connections that will last throughout their professional and academic careers," said Aurora Pribram-Jones, mentor and chemistry teaching/research assistant at UC Irvine, who also touts the value for mentors as well. "Mentoring improves my performance, and pushes me in a different way, professionally and personally. Giving back to the community should be ingrained and institutionalized to sustain women in higher levels too."