Are top LACs doing enough to attract the best & brightest FEMALE math and physical science students?


SCOPE OF THIS THREAD (not that I have any control over it; it has a life of its own): This thread is about co-ed LACs and research universities containing liberal arts programs, as opposed to engineering, business, and other pre-professional programs. I only care about the ‘S’ and the ‘M’ in STEM. Also, if you believe it shouldn’t matter whether there are more women in math and science, or that we shouldn’t make an effort to increase their representation, that is a non-starter for THIS discussion. Please be respectful and take that debate to a separate thread.


FACT: >50% of people in the United States were identified as women in the last census.
FACT: In academic departments and in related careers, women are underrepresented in mathematics and science. Overall, this is improving, but we need to look beneath the surface:

  • Women are better represented in health-related fields, so biological sciences have healthy (couldn’t resist) representation.
  • Chemistry is not good, but it is better than its physical science siblings.
  • When we turn to physics, mathematics, and applied sciences, the numbers are pathetic.
    To state the obvious, some schools are doing better than others.
    ASSUMPTION: There is a percentage of women who start out with higher aptitude for math and science than the average man majoring in these fields, but these women shy away from these fields anyway in college and beyond.


In an unrelated discussion thread, one or two parents commented that colleges don’t really care whether a female applicant wants to be a STEM major or not, that women in STEM no longer matter in admissions, especially if the applicant is Asian American, since the latter is disproportionately represented in STEM. I have a problem with these statements.

Let’s look at the case of small LACs. They claim to be as committed to natural sciences as other fields - they love to say that undergrads will have great research opportunities and more attention from faculty than at research universities. The majority or 50% of students at LACs are women, with no exceptions that I’m aware of (if you don’t count the military academies), and the overwhelming majority of applicants are women. Yet, the overwhelming majority of students majoring in the physical sciences at LACs I have spot-checked are men. The percentage of tenured faculty in these departments who have two X chromosomes is also atrocious. I don’t have a comprehensive data analysis to back up my claims; not writing a dissertation here.


This is a chicken-and-egg problem. We can’t force a woman to pursue a field she’s not interested in. On the other hand, a woman with an open mind, aptitude, and opportunity can be encouraged to move in a particular direction, if mentors believe she would thrive there. Moreover, some women are more likely to try out fields where there are female role models already. It’s natural. To do otherwise can be intimidating to many, and not everyone wants to be the pioneer. I wonder if we’re doing enough.

I don’t expect people to produce hard data, but I would like to hear people’s opinions and relevant experience. I’m trying to separate fact from fiction.

  1. Do you think LACs and research universities are doing enough to attract women students to math and physical sciences?
  2. If yes, what are some ways in which they are doing this? Examples please.
  3. Are the women being admitted to LACs overwhelmingly candidates with academic backgrounds reflecting low interest in math and science? (courses taken in school and grades; standardized test scores in math, physics, chemistry, vs. other subjects/sections)
  4. If yes to #3, why? In the "holistic" admissions process, why wouldn't these colleges want to identify and boost admissions for women who are stronger in math and science? They make it a point to look at race, athlete status, and legacy status.
  5. If no to #3, are we seeing a phenomenon in which women who performed well in math and science in high school lose interest in college, resulting in the selection of majors observed at these colleges? For example, "Mary Jane" kicks butt in Calculus and Physics in high school. She goes to Ivory Tower College and majors in Psychology. Psychology is a wonderful field; however MJ is smarter and more knowledgeable than the average guy who chooses to major in physics. Only 14% of Physics majors at Ivory Tower are women.The physics world could use a brain like MJ's. She might have the potential to make a world-changing discovery! So what happened? Do all women like MJ find physics boring? Is it because academia hasn't done a good job showing women like MJ how physics can help make the world a better, albeit differently than clinical psychology and medicine? Too much focus on the geeky stuff, thus losing the bigger picture? Not warm and fuzzy enough? Or is it because only ONE female professor in the physics department, of the few who are full faculty, has tenure?
  6. What IS the air-speed velocity of an unladen swallow? Assume it is African.
  1. The ones where my D applied absolutely were pushing hard for women in STEM programs.

  2. Offering good merit aid and preferential packaging to the best applicants to help build those departments.

My D17 is majoring in computer science next year. She’s had years of programming and competitions, and missed NMSF by 1 point (this stated for background and experience).

She didn’t like any of the LAC comp sci departments she looked at because she didn’t feel like they fit what she was looking for, or they didn’t offer enough or any merit money (she’s not interested in staggering debt).

So all of her choices have been big universities with either big merit aid or top ranked CS departments. She’s ok with either CS through engineering or CS through the college of arts and sciences, though.

There’s another factor to consider with women applying CS-the major is somewhat immune to prestige, and CS women tend to be potentially more pragmatic when it comes to how much debt they’re willing to shoulder for that particular degree. The LAC’s she looked at (Swarthmore, U Richmond, Harvey Mudd) just didn’t work for her using those metrics.

But, she is just one data point, and it might be an outlier at that.

Oh, and this comment

is incredibly offensive to a mother of a dragon (and I suspect most mothers of daughters). My daughter eats warm and fuzzy for breakfast.


What do you REALLY want to know? Your list of questions has been answered numerous times on this forum…so do a search.

I agree with MOD…your post is offensive to kids, like my daughter, who was an engineering major. You make it sound like these smaller schools admit any woman just because they are a woman.

Sorry…but that’s simply not true.

Oh…and at most schools…women don’t get more scholarships on STEM fields simply because they are women.

I know y’all have not read my post carefully, and now you are offended. Do you know how I know this? Because in the very first paragraph, I stated that I am not interested in discussing engineering and CS, i.e., the ‘T’ and ‘E’ in STEM. I work in Silicon Valley and am tired of people thinking that STEM is limited to those areas. Besides, a lot of analysis has been done in those areas because industry only cares about degrees that produce workers. It annoys me to no end. I appreciate your information, but again, I want to concentrate on physical sciences and mathematics. Physics, math, and chemistry to a lesser degree because the first two are where I see the biggest gender imbalances.

Here’s where I’m coming from. I’m trying to find out how serious LACs really are about women in physical sciences and mathematics. There is a serious gender imbalance at LACs in physical sciences and mathematics. Period. Yet, the majority of students at these schools are women. Why then is there such a huge discrepancy? I demand to know why this is the case. Is it because of something happening at the schools, is this a social issue, or is this a simple matter of women who are serious about physical sciences and mathematics going to research universities and engineering schools because they are getting better opportunities than at LACs? (Or at least, there is a perception of better opportunity.)

@MotherOfDragons :

In this age of fake news and The Onion, I need to do what Andy Borowitz of the New Yorker does and distinguish my satirical remarks from authentic opinions. My “warm and fuzzy” comment falls into the former category. I have thrown in a few stereotypes that I read about even in the year 2016 - no, almost 2017. These are not MY reasons. If you don’t believe me, this is a wake-up call. I read one article about how women don’t like engineering and physical sciences because they don’t see the “humanity” of those fields, and that to attract women, professors must show them how these disciplines work towards the “betterment of humanity”. Warm and fuzzy. Is that what they think girls are looking for when they blow through calculus and physics problem sets? Not that there’s anything wrong with wanting betterment of humanity. Everyone should be looking out for that. But the stereotyping is the issue. Somehow, women are not supposed to appreciate the same things as men for the same reasons, for example, the sheer technical challenges, or the beauty of solving difficult problems, etc. etc. My wife, the mathematician, and my daughter, the wannabe astrophysicist, scoff at the notion, as does your daughter. It is also offensive to men who prefer the arts and humanities.

Read this article I just came across from Williams College: search for Williams and “female-applied-science-math-majors-remain-underrepresented”

The questions stemmed from a combination of personal circumstances and research my wife (mathematician) started in grad school about the root causes of gender imbalance in STEM, both in academics and in careers. She took a global perspective. There was no clear answer. Some still try to explain it away with nature. Others blame nurture.

The astrophysics daughter loves the LACs because of their size and the accessibility of the professors. That’s where she has primarily applied, beyond the UCs and Cal Poly SLO (for physics). But with each day that goes by since she submitted the Common App, her friends interested in scientific research keep pushing her to stick with the UCs because they don’t believe she will get good opportunities at the LACs. I don’t believe that’s true for pure science, if your intention is to go to graduate school for a Ph.D. These schools have high placement into such programs and are highly respected. But this prompted me to look for answers about what is really going on at these colleges beneath the surface.

CC works best when topics are discussed as a community. Not an exposition to be refuted.

The truth lies somewhere in the vast differences among colleges (here, LACs.) Many provide rigorous training in both skills and analytical thinking for any aspect of stem. Many offer research experiences, internships, etc, to promote readiness of both genders for their post-grad choices. But not all.

Many hs are vigorously providing girls with the basis on which to proceed with a stem major, if they so choose. Taught by enthusiastic hs teachers, male and female, at a challenging level. No, not all.

Many gals now apply to college stem (yes, I will lump them, because I mean all the sub aspects) wonderfully prepared and enthusiastic (and with an awareness of what these fields are, beyond hs coursework, Discovery Channel or some other appetizer. ) They have (this shows most especially in the last 2 or 3 years) equivalent creds to the males, including outside hs.

It’s up to kids and parents to vet the programs at individual colleges, the real nitty gritty of courses, the particular research interests and avtivities of profs, what funding exists for research, how students tap into that.

You probably don’t like my response, either. But there are no fixed answers re: why qualified gals change course or why another field attracts them.

ps. Don’t believe everything you read in the media.

I don’t participate in conversations where someone is really offensive and then goes “just kidding, boy you have no sense of humor.” It’s a waste of my time. I hope you don’t talk to your daughters that way.

FWIW, CS can be through the college of arts and sciences, and therefore does meet your bizarre criteria of “only S, no T or E”.

There isn’t an imbalance at Harvey Mudd. They graduated more female physics majors than male last year. It certainly can be done. But Mudd has made a concerted effort in recruiting female students, female faculty (a key reason why my D chose Mudd), and making the intro classroom experience for STEM subjects more accessible for students who haven’t been living & breathing STEM subjects for many years prior to college. I don’t think anyone would say my kid was unqualified – 2380 superscored SAT, 800s in Math 2 and Lit subject tests.

I think the effort has to start before college. My D participated in FIRST robotics in HS, and I think it gave her the confidence to apply to Mudd and major in physics. I volunteer now for FIRST, partly because I think it is a valuable way to open up STEM options for young women.

I also think grad schools have a lot of work to do; heard a piece on Science Friday a couple weeks ago about a study providing the same STEM grad school application with male & female names for admissions review, and the male names getting the nod far more often than the female for the exact same application/letters/grades/etc. My kid’s advisor has steered her away from some grad programs that have a reputation as lousy environments for women, too – but not every undergrad advisor is going to do that. Limited admissions and a crappy environment for women at a lot of schools continues to affect the pipeline of women into STEM faculty positions.

And again I ask @BobShaw.

What do you REALLY want to know? What?

Free advice. Your daughter should STOP discussing HER college search and selection process with her friends.

Here’s my anecdotal input. My D is a sophomore at a top LAC. She was a high stats applicant with 800’s on her Math2 and Chemistry subject tests and 5’s on her AP exams including Calc BC and Chemistry, and had A’s in Multivariable Calculus her senior year of HS. I did my best to get her look at STEM fields, including more or less making her attend a week long summer camp at the local university where they expose the kids to various engineering fields. She turned that experience into a Common App essay on why she loved science but didn’t want to be a scientist or engineer, but rather wanted to approach science issues from a public policy perspective. She’s now an economics major hoping to end up in a top PhD program, so she will probably also complete a math minor (she got an A in Linear Algebra freshman year). But her favorite classes are in the politics department so she may end up with a double econ/politics major and a math minor. Economics and politics are where her passions are, and none of my attempts to steer her toward STEM fields had any discernable impact. There would be plenty of support for her at her LAC for a STEM major if she wanted to pursue one. So I’ve wised up and thrown my support behind her chosen goals.

You haven’t been around CC very long, have you? Good luck getting a thread to stay on the track you dictate it should be on.

It’s not that “women in STEM no longer matter in admissions.” What I remember is saying there is no auto hook, if the gal is unprepared or otherwise doesn’t meet the college’s full expectations. The competitiveness of stem females is surging. And guess what? The best may peel off to Stanford, MIT, Mudd and others.

And, “especially if the applicant is Asian American” is unfounded. That belief belongs in the wild thread about race.

FWIW (it’s only a single data point after all) - My D is at a LAC. She entered thinking she’d be some type of humanities major (she took the physics and calc in HS but she certainly wasn’t one that “kicked butt” nor did she fall in love with the fields). But her experience taking Physics and Calculus her first semester convinced her to major in physics. Her professors really inspired and encouraged her. As a physics major she was required to take some kind of CS class and discovered another new “love”. She is now a huge fan of math, physics and computer science – and she loves to tutor others to help them overcome their difficulties. Much of that is due to the influence of her LAC and the professors there.

Regarding “peeling off”, my kid at Mudd got in every place she applied. So she had choices like Swarthmore, Carleton, and UChicago. But @lookingforward is right. Once she visited for accepted student visits, a more STEM focused school stood out for her. There were simply more resources and opportunities in the fields that interested her. She also felt that even though all LACs have small class sizes, Mudd seemed unique in the very high level of personal support (tutoring, mentoring, advising) she thought she would need to succeed. I do think in general that is strong at LACs, though, and her second choice was probably Swarthmore. But Mudd really, really emphasizes those.

My D gave her final choice serious thought because she knew it meant she was all in for some kind of STEM major or career if she picked it. And this is a kid who loves literature (was a top Quiz Bowl player in HS with a specially in lit, art, and opera – and her secondary non-STEM concentration at Mudd is literature). But she knew that STEM made the most career sense for her, and seems happy with her choice.

I think right now, highly qualified women have a better chance to get into top schools with top STEM programs, particularly where the applicant pool skews male. LACs with a larger female applicant pool struggle to keep their genders balanced – they are less worried about specific majors, especially since kids are so likely to switch majors anyway. So that is why a STEM focused female may not get much of a tip, if any at a traditional LAC.

The creds from more and more stem gals are pretty impressive. They didn’t coast through hs, under the impression they could just umbrella their ECs under “passions” and get good stats, and wait for the offers to roll in.

At the LAC my chem-major relative (f) attends, women comprise exactly half of both the chemistry and physics faculties and a woman holds the chair of the math department. Gender issues with respect to women in science – perhaps partly because there appeared to be no evident disparity within her primary college of interest – have not seemed to pertain to her pursuits in any way.

Physics is not generally a popular major; at a small school, you may want to be sure that the department is large enough to have a full set of the core major offerings at reasonable frequency for a student planning to go on to PhD study. Some LACs are perfectly fine for this purpose; others may be less suitable. For a student with an interest in astrophysics, junior/senior level electives in that area would also be desirable.

I.e. the specific school/department matters. Check course catalogs, schedules, and faculty rosters.

Preparation for economics PhD programs typically means taking advanced math and statistics courses like real analysis, proof-based linear algebra, calculus-based probability theory, etc… So she should be on the right track with a math minor.

As a math major, the main reason I didn’t want to go to an LAC is that they usually don’t offer graduate classes. There are some exceptions, like Bryn Mawr College and Wesleyan University, which have math Ph.D. programs. There are also colleges like Harvey Mudd, whose undergraduate classes would have been enough. However, the general rule is that LACs have more limited offerings than universities because they are designed to be small and undergraduate-oriented.

(This is going to be controversial, but I’ve also gotten the feeling that some LACs treat their students like children. I’ve heard of schools that won’t let students live off-campus even if they’re upperclassmen and have family nearby. I know they have their reasons, but I didn’t want to live in an environment as controlling as that.)

I’ve never personally experienced anything other than support from my professors, peers, etc. when I talk about my aspirations. For me, the main difficulty (other the material itself) is that I’m not sure how a math-related career will fit into my future. People often make it sound like success in STEM requires you to be a nomad with no ties to anyone or anything!

I understand what you’re saying. There’s a stereotype that women can’t be intrinsically interested in anything worthwhile or difficult, especially something like math. I consider it worse than the stereotype that women are bad at math. I don’t think the betterment of humanity is warm and fuzzy, though.

@halcyonheather, the LAC campus housing situation had more to do with economics for the college and creating a campus community feeling than anything else. I don’t think control is the issue.