Why STEM Students Need Gender Studies

Gender studies scholarship and practice contribute to student development and to faculty networking.
By Carol Colatrella

Recent university budget reductions and debates about improving efficiencies in higher education have encouraged speculation about the relative values of different disciplines. Critics argue that the humanities and social sciences are less valuable than science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields because they do not generate the same levels of external research funding, donations, and municipal investment. Those who attempt to assign value to particular fields weigh initial salaries for graduates, the availability of jobs, and the need for employees with scientific and technical knowledge and skills, deeming fields without clearly defined career paths less worthy of public support. The headline of a January 29, 2013, article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “N.C. Governor Wants to Tie University Support to Jobs, Not Liberal Arts,” illuminates the tension between employment goals and the liberal arts in public discourse about higher education. I was more immediately troubled, however, by Governor Pat McCrory’s assertion, in a radio conversation with former US secretary of education William J. Bennett, that gender studies courses “have no chance of getting people jobs.”

As someone who has helped to build a gender studies program, I would offer a counterargument. Gender studies as a field illustrates the potential of interdisciplinary scholarship in today’s scientific and technical university: it can increase the representation of women and minorities in STEM fields and help prepare them to participate in those fields. 

Politicians and the public should value the contributions of those who teach and carry out research in the interdisciplinary field of gender studies. The outcomes of effective gender studies programs and associated initiatives include increasing knowledge about social organization and cultural values; creating networks affiliating faculty, students, staff, and alumni; and enhancing campus community. The long-standing efforts to increase the numbers of women and historically underrepresented minorities in STEM fields at the Georgia Institute of Technology, where I teach, have gained traction from the success of academic and social initiatives connecting gender studies theory and practice in the liberal arts with other academic disciplines. 

Infusing the concerns of gender studies in STEM fields can boost placement rates for women in high-salary science and technology jobs and lead to improved work-life balance across fields. My experiences at Georgia Tech demonstrate that gender studies scholarship and related activities are valuable in many ways.

Studying gender informs citizens. Gender studies scholarship encourages attention to social, political, and economic interests and outcomes. Changing demographics require professionals in all fields to understand the motivations of workers and the dimensions of corporate and social organizations—insights developed from studying social sciences. All professional fields require the ability to communicate clearly and persuasively both orally and in writing; students develop these skills in writing, communications, and literature courses. All citizens should be able to understand the effect of social contexts and historical influences on contemporary issues and be able to think critically about policy arguments.

In the Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts at Georgia Tech, gender studies courses teach students to analyze how gender, race, ethnicity, class, age, and sexual orientation affect participation in society. Gender studies courses can be helpful in addressing a wide range of civic issues, such as the effect of voting schedules and polling locations on voter turnout, the capacities and rights of female soldiers to serve in combat roles, the design of technologies (such as airbags) to suit different populations, and the insurance needs of the most vulnerable members of society. 

Gender studies courses and initiatives promote understanding of personal and social values and intellectual merit. In addition to enhancing participation in civic debates and success in future careers, gender studies courses and workshops help students as they engage in daily human interactions. Students in my classes report that the readings we discuss help them understand how small decisions (which person drives and what he or she drives, who decides where and what to eat or who should prepare it, how one dresses or styles one’s hair) are related to culturally constructed expectations. They also develop insights into social organizations and actors that can be usefully applied in a variety of situations. Although relatively few students at Georgia Tech minor or major in gender studies, hundreds of students enroll in gender studies courses because they value learning about how organizational environments incorporate or exclude individuals on the basis of gender, how stereotypes function in elite and popular cultural forms, and how and why the political clout of women and men has varied at different times in history and in different cultures. Gender studies analysis reinforces knowledge and skills that students develop in other disciplines, including STEM fields.

Initiatives related to gender studies are valuable in building institutional capacity. Students, faculty, and staff at Georgia Tech now participate in a range of initiatives initially developed by women’s studies scholars and other advocates for equity. In 1995, together with three colleagues in the Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts, I developed a minor in women, science, and technology, the first curriculum of its kind in the country and the first joint minor approved by the university. In 1998, I worked with Mary Frank Fox, a distinguished sociologist of science, to create the Center for the Study of Women, Science, and Technology (WST), which connects approximately thirty Georgia Tech faculty members with research interests in gender, science, and technology. The WST center sponsors research panels, lectures by outside speakers, and leadership workshops. It also holds discussions designed to increase the numbers of women and historically underrepresented minority students and faculty members at the university and to make the campus more welcoming for people in these groups. The WST center directed the first campus funding for undergraduates doing research with affiliated faculty members. 

Gender studies initiatives provide resources for women in the STEM pipeline that have broad impact. Since 1999, WST has offered an annual lecture on women, science, and technology delivered by a person distinguished in research, practice, or policy. The lecture attracts a diverse audience at Georgia Tech and draws attention to the need for continuing efforts to increase the proportions of women and historically underrepresented minorities in STEM fields. In 2000, in coordination with staff in Georgia Tech’s student housing office and the Women’s Resource Center, the WST center founded the first living-learning community on campus, the Women, Science, and Technology Learning Community. It annually houses forty-eight female students living in two connected residence halls. These young women (and any other interested Georgia Tech students and faculty members) participate in dinners, lunches, receptions, and research panels designed to enhance career success and to improve campus experiences. Graduate student partners assist codirectors and other faculty members in guiding undergraduates. Residents can opt to take a course held in the complex, meet with faculty mentors for informal advising and conversation, engage in paid or for-credit research in their disciplines or related to WST initiatives, and contribute to the WST service project, the Girls Excelling in Math and Science club at a local middle school. WST also helps to support attendance by residents at professional meetings, promoting networking for jobs and further study in STEM fields. 

Gender studies scholars and advocates promote leadership and mentoring to benefit the campus community. The WST learning community welcomes all interested students, faculty, and staff to events and supports informal faculty-student interaction, formal mentoring, leadership development, and networking. Under my direction, during the last fourteen years the WST learning community has connected approximately five hundred Georgia Tech students across majors with an array of faculty and staff members, administrators, alumni, and employers in strategic discussions about career success. Other campus events sponsored or cosponsored by WST include a campus reception to welcome new women faculty, lunch discussions about research productivity, and workshops fostering collaboration. These events and resulting partnerships have helped to warm what many formerly regarded as a chilly climate for women at the university. Approximately 115 staff and faculty members, men and women alike, have volunteered as WST mentors or spoken at dinners, panels, and lunches. Graduates of the WST learning community and other Georgia Tech alumni who participated in WST research projects and programs now include writers, doctors, lawyers, faculty members, teachers, engineers, computer scientists, business executives, and members of other professions who are applying their knowledge of gender studies to their lives and careers. 

Gender studies research identifies institutional problems involving equity and recommends solutions. Building on WST innovations, Georgia Tech has developed a number of institutional initiatives to improve equity. From 2001 to 2007 the three WST center codirectors collaborated with others across campus on the Georgia Tech–National Science Foundation (NSF) ADVANCE program to support women faculty; this project was among the first ADVANCE programs funded by NSF and the first to institutionalize its activities (in spring 2007). WST codirector Campus events sponsored or cosponsored by WST and resulting partnerships have helped to warm what many formerly regarded as a chilly climate for women at the university. Mary Frank Fox wrote the grant proposal and served as a principal investigator, research director, and key organizer of activities for women faculty in her college. WST codirector and polymer engineering professor Mary Lynn Realff also served as a principal investigator and was the program director, while as a WST codirector I collaborated on research and the grant project to study bias in evaluation and to make recommendations to eliminate it. From 2005 to 2007, I also served as program director of the Georgia Tech ADVANCE program and was charged with institutionalizing its activities. 

Other administrators and faculty members also collaborated on the project. Mary Frank Fox’s research and the deliberations of an institutional faculty committee reporting to the grant’s principal investigator (our then provost Jean-Lou Chameau) provided the basis for the main product of the Georgia Tech ADVANCE program: the ADEPT (Awareness of Decisions in Evaluating Promotion and Tenure) instrument. Working with digital media graduate students, I coordinated the development of this tool, which includes case studies, a bibliography, and computer games to inform candidates for promotion and tenure about bias and to reduce such bias in faculty evaluation committees (see http://www.adept.gatech.edu for more information). 

ADVANCE still serves as a resource for faculty and administrators working to improve equity in the university; like the WST center, it is now overseen by the vice president for institute diversity, a position created in 2010. 

Collaborations among diversity and inclusion programs enable campus gender studies initiatives to complement and to reinforce one another. To maximize effectiveness and leverage resources, the WST center has collaborated with Georgia Tech’s academic colleges as well as with units sponsoring diversity and inclusion efforts on campus, including OMED educational services (formerly the Office of Minority Education), Hispanic initiatives, and diversity programs in student services. Other campus programs—the Women in Engineering Program, the Women’s Resource Center, the Center for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning, and the Center for Education in Science, Math, and Computing—predate WST and work on complementary initiatives to improve equity. Faculty and staff members have strategically developed these initiatives to meet identified needs of the institution. WST initiatives concentrate on enhancing faculty-student interaction around research and career planning. 

External initiatives sponsored by gender studies programs help institutions retain and advance women in the STEM pipeline and improve institutional reputation. The Women’s International Research (WIRES) Network, a WST initiative designed to support collaborations in engineering, demonstrates how the synergy between external initiatives and WST efforts on campus has promoted equity for women in STEM fields within and beyond Georgia Tech. WIRES participants from the United States and abroad discuss international networking among women in engineering. Online conferences and two international meetings have already been held, and a third is planned. The first two summits led to partnerships that generated forty-two international research proposals, of which ten were funded; the summits also led to fifty-six shared visits between collaborators. Sixty-seven percent of summit participants report increased international collaboration, which has become a requirement for advancement as university faculty. 

Gender studies scholars and advocates create and sustain successful programs that enhance the institution. Over the past two decades, the institutional environment at Georgia Tech has improved partly as a result of WST innovations that have served as models. For example, an undergraduate research opportunity program is now open to all students and supported by the president’s office. Eight other learning communities directed by faculty members recruit students each year, enhancing faculty-student interaction in ways that WST has modeled. Last year the housing office began inviting faculty members to informal dinners with students in residence halls, a concept pioneered by WST. Such initiatives extend the goals of WST and benefit the entire campus community.

For me, the most salient outcome of WST initiatives has been the improved prospects for students during their time at Georgia Tech and in their careers. Students who work on research and community projects with WST faculty, take gender studies classes, attend leadership workshops, or live in the WST learning community report increased satisfaction with their campus experience. Participating in gender studies initiatives improves students’ understanding of the social dimensions of gender. The gender initiatives developed by WST can serve as models for other institutions seeking to strengthen the participation of women in STEM fields.

Carol Colatrella is professor of literature and associate dean for graduate studies and faculty affairs in the Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts and codirector of the Center for the Study of Women, Science, and Technology at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Her publications include Toys and Tools in Pink: Cultural Narratives of Gender, Science, and Technology and Technology and Humanity. Her e-mail address is [email protected].