For women studying science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, they are often trailblazers charting new paths in male-dominated fields.
But this comes with the burden of being the first. Being a pioneer sounds inspiring to others, but it can be isolating for the people living through it.
A new paper published in the National Bureau of Economic Research found that women in the minority at STEM programs are much less likely to stay in them. Looking at 2,541 students enrolled in 33 graduate programs at six Ohio public universities between 2005 and 2016, Valerie Bostwick and Bruce Weinberg at Ohio State University found that when there is only one woman enrolled in doctoral programs, that woman is about 12 percentage points less likely to graduate within six years than her male counterpart.
Women pioneers were not only more likely not to finish their degree in time, but they were also more likely not to get it at all. Freshman women who were the only female in their class were about 10 percentage points more likely to drop out in that first year.
Women keep women in STEM
In general, a woman who was joining a class with more men than usual for her field was about 7% less likely to graduate within six years than her male peers. But that disparity went away the more women were in the program.
Seeing someone who looks like you succeed can be a motivating force to keep going. The researchers suggested that a female peer can give women visible benefits like a study partner to boost their grades and someone to inform them of research funding opportunities. It can also give them less visible benefits like a feeling of belonging: “the share of women in a cohort might have an intangible effect on the climate surrounding the students in that cohort, which increases female persistence in a less measurable manner,” the paper concluded.
The value of a support system cannot be underestimated in one’s career. The study follows research that found that women keep women in engineering. One study found that female freshman engineers who had a female mentor stayed in their programs at a 100% retention rate. When you are facing doubts about whether or not you belong, it helps to have a mentor to support and advise you. If they got through it, so can you.