The number of women pursuing careers in STEM fields has always been lower than men, even as women surpass men in earning college degrees. With the help of an astronaut, a chemist, the chief technology officer at CISCO and hundreds of other women, a new online mentoring program will help close the gap.
The six-week-long pilot program, called WitsOn (Women in Technology Sharing Online), will connect undergraduates interested in STEM careers with women in the profession. Several major research universities — including Harvard, MIT, Stanford and UC Berkeley — have already signed on to participate in the program, which is set to start Oct. 1.
Through the program, students will be able to submit questions online to more than 300 women about their experiences as women in STEM fields. Organizers hope this format will encourage students to ask “probing and difficult questions.”
“All [the mentors] have faced the challenge of balancing their careers with other commitments, including personal life, family, faith, and community,” the program’s website states.
The program is part of a growing effort to increase the number of women in STEM fields, where they generally earn less than half of all undergraduate degrees. In engineering and computer science, that number is less than 20 percent.
At some universities the problem is even starker. In UC Berkeley’s College of Engineering, the percentage of female students was 23 percent, but in individual departments such as the department of electrical engineering and computer science, the number dropped to 8 percent, according to 2010 data. A California Watch article published last November describing sexism faced by female engineering students at UCB resulted in a closer examination of the problem by college administrators.
The hope is that a program like WitsOn, which is open to schools across the country, will have a lasting impact even after the six weeks end. Participants are matched with mentors with similar interests and are encouraged to continue their relationship with them offline. These relationships could even result in job offers, which is especially alluring in this economy.