Female Role Models May Help Retain Women in STEM Fields

By Roberta Attanasio, Forever Leaders Editor

Women are playing increasingly significant roles in medicine, law, and business.  However, the number of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields is growing at a lower rate.  Although there are significant variations related to specific fields, all together first-year women college students continue to be less likely than their male counterparts to express an interest in choosing STEM majors, resulting in generalized under-representation.

Photo credit: Thomas Rousing, CC BY 2.0

Why are there so few women in STEM?  According to the American Association of University Women (AAUW), implicit biases, stereotypes, and the climate of science and engineering departments in colleges and universities continue to block women’s progress in STEM.  There are two factors to take into account when designing strategies to increase the number of women in STEM.  The first relates to increasing the recruitment of women who enter the STEM pipeline, the second relates to increasing the retention of women who are already in STEM fields.  What can be done to increase women’s recruitment and retention in these fields?  The AAUW proposed solutions include: 1) Get girls interested in science and engineering, 2) Create college environments that support women in science and engineering, 3) Counteract biases.

Role models are essential to stimulate interest and to create supportive environments.  CDW-G—a leading technology provider to higher education and prominent employer in the technology industry—carried out a survey in August and September 2016 to explore women’s experiences and identify features of environments supportive of women in STEM.  The survey included two groups—150 current female STEM students who intended to graduate with a STEM major or had graduated with an undergraduate or graduate STEM degree in the last five years, and 150 former female STEM students who left their STEM major.

Survey results show that both groups experienced negative stereotypes, discomfort asking questions in class, and a lack of female role models.  Almost two-thirds of survey respondents struggled with confidence in STEM.

In addition, survey respondents suggested that universities and colleges take specific actions to provide a more supportive environment by creating internship opportunities for women pursuing STEM, by connecting students with influential females in STEM. and by bringing in more female role models to speak on campus.

Research on same-gender role models indicates that female college students are more inspired by outstanding females than male role models; in contrast, gender does not determine the impact of role models on male college students.  Results from a STEM-specific study show that female science professors benefit women provided students identify with them as role models.  In addition, the results show that female STEM professors not only provide positive role models for women, but they also help to reduce the implicit stereotype that science is masculine in the culture-at-large.

Indeed, the important role that female role models play to positively influence the aspirations of female students is well documented.  One of the factors responsible for the under-representation of women in STEM fields is that women face negative stereotypes regarding their competence in the workplace—Influential female role models help to overcome problems posed by stereotypes as they show that it is possible to bypass gender barriers to achieve success.  Another factor is that female students often experience feelings of not belonging, making them sensitive to cues of rejection.  Female role models increase the sense of belonging because female students perceive their similarity to these role models.  Noticeably, it is the perception of this similarity, not an objective similarity, that mostly influences people’s responses to others.  Perceived similarity may be even more important than demographic similarity in predicting an effective role model.

As one student explains it: “I’m a big believer in the role model effect. Seeing people who look like you makes you want to pursue those fields.

Copyright © 2016-2018 Forever Leaders.


  1. Reading this article has opened my eyes that women face as STEM majors. As a math major, I am enrolled into a STEM program at my university and notice the adversities in first person. First, there are hardly any women professions that teach in stem related classes; therefore, it is difficult for women pursuing degrees in stem fields to have a role model or someone to look up to. In addition, there are very few women enrolled in stem programs. From being in stem classes, there are significantly more male students in my class than female students. As the years progress, I noticed even more women drop out and change their major. I believe to combat this issues, women should create their own Women in STEM club so that women have a channel to network with current and alumni students that are enrolled in STEM fields.

  2. I agree with what I am seeing many of you writing here that role models are needed to lead as underrepresented groups enter certain fields (especially STEM). I think that any time a brave member of a minority group (gender or ethnic) ventures into a largely homologous field, that individual will be a trailblazer. It will be easier for people like them to come along after they have already laid the ground work. For this reason, I think it is more important to be the forerunner than to merely advocate for having more role models to lead the way. Who will those role models be if we wait around for them to appear? If we have the vision for what those role models should look like, I say that we should strive to be those figures instead of waiting to find the ideal leader to emulate. I think we have more of what it takes than we often think, and we just need to run with our ideas and dreams even if we don’t have an authority in our field telling our ideas are great before we act on them.

    • I absolutely agree with your views here. Role models serve as an inspiration to you, but there is no reason to limit who is capable of being an inspiring figure. I am inspired by many people, but for me, that inspiration doesn’t necessarily stem from seeing something in that person that reminds me of myself. You made a great point of acknowledging that sometimes, you have to be a trailblazer if you want your personal qualities to be represented in the field. You should be inspired by other as you make your way to that position, but I think inspiration can also stem from wanting to be a role models for others.

  3. I absolutely agree that it is important to find great role models, but I also believe that you have to actively work to find mentors. There are many impressive women in the STEM field who are more than capable of serving as role models, so I think direct mentorship plays more of a significant role in continuing a career in STEM. Establishing those relationships require that you confidently express your aspirations so that they can easily be recognized, and you cannot let stereotypes prevent you from doing that. It is essential that college environments support students in their endeavors instead of creating an intimidating environment, but as students, we need put effort into meeting faculty interested in working with us, regardless of how intimidating that may seem.

    • @Josh

      Of course, it is a given that women still need to work hard to establish relationships with mentors/role models. I do not think this article was necessarily alluding to women being too shy or lacking the confidence to pursue beneficial relationships with mentors. As we have seen time and time again, equally competent applicants/students/employees/etc. will not always be represented and perceived as such because of the difference in their gender. Women, as a minority, are well aware that we have to work even harder because we have to prove ourselves to everyone around us. We know we have to work hard to establish these mentor-mentee relationships with our “higher-ups.” It is not about that, but finally seeing someone successful, who looks just like you, has had and still has an oddly similar struggle/journey as you, or even values the same things as you. It is in this moment that we realize wow, these successful and powerful women have gone through the same struggles I have. If they can do it, I can do it. It is inspiration to continue to push on through the negativity and innate sexism to show the world what you are made of. It is our fuel to prove to ourselves and those around us who tell us we cannot do something wrong. I am aware however, that there are women who expect handouts simply because they are women, and blame societal biases for their inability to move forward when in fact it is their laziness. I feel as though there needs to be some solutions for helping people realize how to network and be taught how to properly approach and build relationships with successful people who have much better things to do with their time. What are some ideas you guys have concerning this? I think Women Lead courses are awesome for this exact purpose, but as far as we know, we are one of many, many universities who may not have these types of programs. How do we propel these types of programs to be viewed as important for professional development and implemented in schools?

  4. I think that there have been many programs set in place to encourage women to pursue STEM fields. The fact that there aren’t as many women as men after so many efforts to include women may just suggest that there is a biological explanation. Some things are socially influenced but not all. For example, children as young as nine months prefer dolls typed to their gender so dolls for girls and trucks for boys. Infants are hardly susceptible to social influence.

    To flip the script, in the U.S. between 2011-2012 about 76% of teachers were female. There is obviously a preference. Not every things has to be 50/50, we do have partiality in some areas of life.

    It is very possible that more female role models in STEM areas will encourage women to pursue careers in the field but I think that men and women just end up taking different routes. I see firsthand in most of my science classes more women than men. It is possible that after graduation instead of pursuing research jobs women go to do other things like teach.

  5. When it comes to women in STEM, I feel as if the biggest deterrent to entering the field is a feeling of not being wanted. Women are just as capable as men in becoming scientists and engineer, but history as always displayed these careers as being more manly and that woman’s role is more tailored to other jobs and activities. The most well-known scientists and mathematicians in history have been male, so the lack of representation in the STEM makes it difficult for women to want to enter the field not that they are incapable of doing so. I do agree that the solution to this problem is to have more female role models and mentors in STEM so that young women interested in the disciplines but not quite ready to commit will have people who are just like them and people they can relate to. I once had a talk with a woman that said she took up leadership to have the opportunity to inspire other minorities in the STEM that did not have anyone to look up to. Because she was a minority in the field rather than the majority, it makes her so much more relatable and is why she has so much success in inspiring young women. She told me that when wanting to inspire someone, being relatable is one of the key components. Getting more women to enter the STEM field could start with more people speaking out on their own experiences to inspire the next generation of women in STEM.

  6. I definitely agree that having more female role models is an important part to increasing the number of women in the workforce, especially science. We sometimes need that reassurance that what we are pursuing is possible because we can always look at our mentor like “Hey! She did it. So can I.” But I do also agree with the fact that men can serve as great role models as well in a certain light. It shouldn’t be a gender issue about who you can or can’t look up to.

  7. I believe that seeing female STEM role models is really important in instilling confidence in rising female scientists. I can definitely attest to women benefitting more from seeing positive female STEM role models over male ones. I do not know why we have this difference of perception of success, whereas for men it does not matter. But I do realize that I am more inspired if I meet a strong woman in the STEM field owning the workforce. It gives me hope that I too can become like them, and that you can go far in STEM as a woman. I think we are very blessed to be female STEM majors at Georgia State University because over the course of my undergraduate degree, I have, to my all of a sudden surprise, had more female professors than male. I think that because I have attended Georgia State and viewed this trend with my own eyes, it makes it less of a distant dream that one day women will rise in the STEM field, but that it is a reality already. My mind has not really grasped the importance of this trend until I read this blog post and thought about my response. During my undergraduate pursuit, I have never felt inferior to the men around me. More so than not, I have actually experienced a lot more female peers in science major classes than male. For example, in my theme based biology class, an undergraduate research experience counting for course credit, there are only 2 males swimming in a sea of over 18 females. When I sat in my class for the first time, I was thrilled that so many aspiring women stuck to their guns, were confident enough to apply for this class, and were accepted into the program! It cannot go unnoticed as well that our professor plays an indispensable role in this representation and acceptance of qualified and willing female STEM majors. How can we, privileged Georgia State students, spread this feeling of acceptance in other places and universities where this may not be the case? We can begin by talking about it and sharing our experience with others and encouraging them to take steps towards the same trends. We can contribute to perpetuating this positive support by becoming mentors, leaders, and role models to those younger than and under us who may not have the same confidence we now have due to this class.

    • I can definitely relate to how the ratio of men to women in a lot of sciences courses is in favor of the ladies. When I was a sophomore, I was surprised that only two out of the twenty students were males (including myself). Even in my chosen profession of pharmacy, the classroom all across the country are mostly represented by women. For every ten seats in a classroom, a woman will occupy six. It really is great to be able to see all of these women pursuing the sciences. I feel as if the interest has always been there, it’s just that as the generations have gone by, it has been more acceptable for a woman to be in the STEM field. But like you mentioned, it all starts with more role models coming out and sharing their story to inspire young women to pursue their passions.

  8. I fully understand where @Sara is coming from. It’s hard to think that someone that doesn’t look like you can relate to you or understand the struggles that you go through. But I definitely agree with @Nakiera. Men can also be a key factor in the success of women. For example, last summer I did a research internship at the National Institutes of Health. I was very nervous, because I didn’t know what to expect and I wasn’t sure if I would meet their standards. My research mentor was a Japanese male well above my age, which would make you wonder how could he ever relate to me, a young African American female? But he found a way. One thing that we had in common was our love for science and our financial hardships. He found a bridge that connected us, and he shared his story with me. Because of this connection, I felt more capable and everything felt more manageable and attainable.

    We need to stop thinking about everything that people can’t offer us and think about anything that they can, even if it is one thing. Great mentors can mentor almost anyone because they have the ability to find a common ground with anyone, even if the experience is not their own.

    • @Kenya

      I really like what you said about finding a connection to bridge people together. That is the most important thing that a mentor needs to be able to do. Going off what you said, I think people get caught up with the many things people can’t offer them, rather than focusing on what they can. I highly doubt one person can offer us all the advice we need. The great thing about having many mentors is that they each bring their own experiences to the table, and they each have something different to offer you. Ultimately, it’s up to you to take what you receive from them and to implement changes in your thinking and your life.

  9. I can definitely relate to the statement about female role models and professors having a more “inspiring” impact on me than men do. This has a lot to do with the fact that female professors have had to overcome obstacles on their path towards their career and are able to succeed despite facing gender bias. I am better able to relate to them and identify with them due to the fact that women tend to share similar setbacks and experience gender bias at some point or another. How do we make sure that the future generation will see a more gender equal STEM field? I think young girls need to be taught at an early age that they are capable of achieving anything they set their mind to. This can be achieved by making sure our children grow up in an academic environment and society which encourages and supports all girls and young women to aim for a career in the math and sciences (along with any other career path they may choose). In universities, I believe that programs like the women’s lead program here at GSU and other science programs and seminar courses can give women a chance to see how other women are succeeding and have the opportunity to connect with more female professors which would in turn inspire and support them on their path to success.

    • I agree with you. I feel like while men and women are excellent role models, it’s just a bit easier to relate to a female role model in terms of how they reach their success. Men are also great role models, but they do not have to endue some of the hardships that female have to endure. They can give great advice and help us reach our goals but I feel like even if they try to give advice about how to tackle obstacles being a women, there are some men that will be okay with that approach while others are not.

    • I really enjoy this article, and yes, I feel as if true female role models definitely make better impressions than males just because the struggles they have encountered make them more relatable and you know they truly had to work for their achievements. I can honestly say the female guest speakers we have had in this course have been more memorable and inspiring than any of the male speakers I have encountered throughout my entire life. This goes back to one of the discussions we had earlier in the semester in which it was stated that telling a story and having those relatable experiences creates for more of an impactful speech, memoir, or discussion. Have more female role models in STEM paves the way for more young women to enter the STEM field by knowing that they are welcomed and supported and that there are other women out there that have been in the same situation as themselves.

  10. @Sara

    Yes, I understand that women are likely most influential because they can identify most with you, but that doesn’t mean that men can’t be role models as well. I know some men have put women down as they pursued their goals, but it’s not fair to put them all into that category. Personally, I have many women and men roles models, including a physician I shadow and one of my old professors who are both men. They have been encouraging and helpful along my journey. Specifically, how men could encourage women to excel, I have no idea. They don’t know all the challenges because they haven’t experienced them, but by being more open to understanding our challenges is a step. I am sorry that you have found men to be more hurtful than helpful along your journey, but there are men out there willing to help you; you just have to find them. Moreover, I am by no means disagreeing about the necessity of female role models. They have been extremely influential on my life and the lives of many people I know.

  11. I wholeheartedly concur with the author’s opinion here. When I was younger and in a community where I was not exposed to many powerful independent women in either politics nor the sciences, I felt, in spite of ambition, that it would be a hard sell for me to “make it” in these competitive fields. I felt, ironically, like I was trapped in the arts (literature, humanities), which I enjoy, but are more traditionally “feminine.” I find this ironic because in the sciences and policy, you are almost guaranteed to succeed with dedication and hard work, which is not the case in literature. It was only when I began travelling and research when I realized how feasible pursuing my dreams actually could be.
    Wanting more female role models is analogous to how it is important to have role models from people of color, for example, in desirable management positions, academia, and politics. Not only does this encourage the next generation to enter these important fields, but it can also mitigate the polarization that often results from homogeneity (cough, cough: congressional committees composed solely of white, conservative men).
    It is also why we see so much encouragement from laypeople when women (and men!) of all sizes and color are represented in the media. Not everyone is thin, not everyone is a man, and not everyone is white. Yet, none of that should be necessary when determining one’s worth or one’s capabilities.

    • Many of us have the fear that we are not capable of achieving certain goals, because we don’t see people in those positions that look like us, whether it be based on gender and/or race. Although you spoke of how it should not determine one’s worth, sadly it does for many people like myself. When you choose a field to go into where there’s few women, and even fewer black women, you get scared. You start questioning if that path is really for you. But, I think that’s where encouragement from both women and men comes into play. Yes, we do need more female role models. We need more female role models of every race and ethnicity. On the other hand, men need to let women know that they also have the capacity to perform the same exact job as them.

    • @NaKeira

      How, out of curiosity, do you think men might be able to encourage women to excel? I feel like other women are often able to more aptly identify with our fears and provide assistance than men. In the past, it has been mainly men who put me down as I pursued my goals. This dynamic is part of why female role models are so necessary.

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