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2014 Winter Issue 5 (February 14, 2014)

Carleton Sets Female Scientists Up For Success

February 16, 2014
By Lucy Lu

Carleton College has long-held a sterling reputation for inspiring female scientists.  In fact, Carleton sends some of the most women on for advanced degrees in the physical sciences of any college in the U.S.

Carleton’s success in producing female science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) majors is not new.  The number of women majoring in physics, chemistry, and mathematics has remained fairly constant for the past fifteen years. “It does fluctuate up and down: 15 years ago we had about 50% women and now we are down to about 37% and we’ve been there for many years,” said Deanna Hausperger, chair of mathematics department.

Gretchen Hofmeister ’85, chair of chemistry, and Melissa Eblen-Zayas, chair of physics and as-tronomy agree with Hausperger that Carleton has a good history of producing female scientists. “We are doing a good job then and we are doing a good job now,” Hofmeister confirmed.

The research opportunities available to Carleton students are an important factor in inspiring female undergraduates to major in STEM fields. “Carleton has a long record of engaging women students in research, that’s the key,” said Hofmeister. “I did research here when I was a student,” she recalled her college experience in Carleton. “It’s definitely instrumental.”

Another factor is having a female role model. Carleton differs from many other institution in the sex ratio of faculty members. “Three of the eight tenure faculty in our department are women which is significantly higher than what you can find in other schools of our size,” said Eblen-Zayas. In addition, Carleton “tries to make sure there is a representation of both men and women” in bringing guest speakers to campus.

Carleton is also successful in creating a sense of community around women in science. “There is a women social event once a term where we try to introduce the women to the other women who are already in the major,” said Haunsperger. The women in science communities hold activities regularly. This January, the physics department supported W.I.P (Women in Physics) to go to a conference in Chicago to encourage interactions with other females in the field.

The challenge of closing the gender gap in STEM fields often results from student’s experiences with science prior to coming to Carleton. “The issue is actually not what’s going on in Carleton…if students have been turned off to physics in high school then it becomes difficult to recruit them,” said Eblen-Zayas.

All interviewees mentioned that people should not only encourage women participation in science, but also male participation. “Getting people in to science is important,” Hofmeister said. “Whenever you are only getting half of the population to do something, you are missing out the on the talents.”

“Our hope is that just by making our department welcoming to all students, we will make it a place that is comfortable for women and for men and then for students from all different backgrounds,” Eblen-Zayas said.

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