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$1.9M grant aims to close gender gap

November 25, 2009

While experts predict the majority of workers in the United States will be women by the end of this year, they still lag far behind men in earning doctoral degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields.

To help close this gender gap, the National Science Foundation (NSF) recently awarded a $1.9 million grant to a team of ASU researchers, led by Bianca L. Bernstein, a professor in the Mary Lou Fulton Institute and Graduate School of Education, to support efforts designed to help women persist and succeed in STEM doctoral degree programs.

“From a national point of view, we want to improve the quality of scientific discovery,” Bernstein said. “There’s no question the discoveries and innovations are important, but so are the human beings in the system, where the road to becoming a scientist or engineer can be a tough one for women.”

The rate at which women are earning doctoral degrees in STEM disciplines is 7 percent to 10 percent lower than their male counterparts, according to the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS), which identifies gender as the strongest predictor of doctoral degree completion in STEM fields.

More women with advanced degrees in STEM fields translates into “new ideas, new patents and new developments coming to fruition,” said Susanne Neuer, the president of the Central Arizona Chapter of the Association for Women in Science and an associate professor in ASU’s School of Life Sciences.

ASU’s CareerWISE II project seeks to understand and decrease the loss of committed women from science and engineering doctoral programs as it addresses an overarching research question: Can deliberate resilience training, delivered via the Internet, strengthen women’s persistence in doctoral programs in science and engineering?

The first phase of the project was supported by $1 million in NSF funding awarded in 2006. Through CareerWISE II, the researchers are extending their previous work by developing and testing a resource-rich Web site that will provide a unique, interactive, multimodal learning environment for improving interpersonal communication and problem-solving skills among STEM women.

The innovative Web site offers the first empirical-based approach to providing women pursuing advanced degrees in STEM with a comprehensive course of psychological education via the Web. It includes materials designed to help women strengthen their interpersonal skills and further develop the personal and psychological resources critical for mobilizing support and overcoming obstacles.  The site will feature:

• Key modules for building interpersonal skills.

• Videos from candid interviews with successful women who describe the challenges and successes they experienced during their own doctoral studies in science and engineering.

• Self-quizzes and other activities that promote resilience skills.

The CareerWISE program recently began recruiting female doctoral students in science and engineering disciplines nationwide to preview and evaluate the new Web tool. There’s been an overwhelming response, with about 300 women expressing interest in the first week.

The enthusiastic response came as no surprise to Bernstein.

“At conferences I never talk about obstacles women face in STEM doctoral programs without someone having a story about how it happened to them,” she says. “The perspectives of psychology can help women better manage these situations.”

Joining Bernstein on the CareerWise II project are Robert Atkinson, an associate professor of educational technology; Jennifer M. Bekki, an assistant professor in the Department of Engineering at the Polytechnic campus; and a team of graduate students and research assistants led by Caroline Harrison, a postdoctoral researcher. Mary Lee Smith, a Regents’ Professor with the Fulton Institute and Graduate School of Education and highly regarded scholar in qualitative and mixed methods research, is directing the research studies.

“We know from our early studies that it is not unusual for these bright and talented women to experience a loss of confidence during their graduate years,” Bernstein said. She added that interviews with women in STEM doctoral programs revealed four common sources of discouragement: lack of direction or active encouragement from advisers, difficulty with striking the work/life balance, facing a cold or isolating departmental climate, and coping with delays and setbacks. 

CareerWISE teaches skills to ward off discouragement and stay focused and motivated to complete their degrees.  Bekki said the training is flexible and “the Web site will appeal to STEM students and professionals because it supplements the problem-solving model scientists and engineers are so familiar with.”

The new NSF grant will allow the ASU researchers to take the project a step further by adding a comprehensive training in interpersonal communication skills. And, with the assistance of faculty and students from Educational Technology, Arts, Media and Engineering and Communication Studies, the research team will add branching simulations to the content that already is available. 

“The simulations will enable women to role-play and get immediate feedback on what would happen if they took this action,” Atkinson said. “Women will have an opportunity to practice their newfound skills in a safe environment and figure out a style that works best for them. The simulations also serve as a catalyst for women to go and read items from a collection of related resources, including briefs and other stories.”

Atkinson adds the Web site allows users to spend as much or as little time as they choose.

“We recognize that women who will be using it will only be going in for short bursts of time to get content that’s relevant to their particular issues,” he said.

Randomized clinical trials now are under way. The researchers expect to announce the public launch of the Web site in 2010.

Lori Baker,
Mary Lou Fulton Institute and Graduate School of Education