Being a woman in the sciences can be a lonely venture. Nationwide, women earn a fraction of the number of bachelor's degrees men earn in such subjects as computer science, physics, and math. At USF, administrators and faculty are actively working to change this imbalance.
No one looked askance when Lauren Assour entered Introduction to Computer Science II on the first day of the fall semester in 2007. The following spring, she wasn't assigned a seat separated from her classmates in Data Structures and Algorithms. In fact, there was no acknowledgement by fellow students or professors that something or, rather, someone was out of place.
Assour, now a University of San Francisco senior, was so engrossed in her newly declared major at the time that her distinction as a national statistic wasn't something she thought much about, until a year ago.
"It's funny because I never really paid any attention to it until I started doing things with the Women in Computer Science group my junior year," said Assour, who studies video game development and enjoys robotics.
As a computer science major, Assour was one of only two or three women in any of the required courses for her major—an unsettling trend that mirrors national findings and reflects broad gaps in the number of women compared to men earning degrees in fields like computer science, math, physics, and astronomy.
Nationwide, women earn 58 percent of all bachelor's degrees, but just 19 percent of computer science, 21 percent of physics, and 44 percent of math bachelor's degrees, according to the National Science Foundation's latest figures.
Identifying barriers to educating women in these fields and devising strategies to overcome them are the subject of numerous studies, piles of articles and books, and a recent hearing by the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Science and Technology's Research and Science Education Subcommittee.
USF administrators and faculty, intent on seeing more female students study science and math, are pursuing a number of the most promising approaches, including recruiting more female faculty, developing women in science support groups, expanding student mentoring, and even modifying parts of the curriculum.
"Think of green technology, e-commerce, online social networking, and biomedical technology," said Jennifer Turpin, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. "These fields will produce the jobs of the future. If we fail to provide a level playing field for female students and faculty now, they will be cut off from those opportunities."
Role Models Needed
"I think one of the biggest challenges for female students in science and math is self-esteem," Assour said. "For example, I didn't go into physics as a freshman, as I had planned, because I felt like I couldn't do that many calculus classes."
Research by social scientists supports Assour's assumption, identifying a lack of self-confidence in science and math and a tendency toward less aggressive self-promotion as common impediments for many female students in traditionally male-dominated fields.
The findings aren't surprising, according to Sami Rollins, USF assistant professor of computer science. Rollins, who heads up the university's Women in Computer Science group, formed in 2007, said female students in computer science, math, and physics have historically lacked female faculty to draw on as role models—an essential ingredient in developing self-confidence and networks that can promote them into internships and full-time employment.
"There have been a number of publications and articles written that outline the importance of mentoring and networking by female faculty in recruiting and retaining young women in fields like computer science," said Rollins, an adviser and mentor to several students, female and male, including Assour.
Since taking the helm as the College of Arts and Sciences' first female dean in 2003, Turpin has emphasized the benefits of recruiting high-caliber female faculty in the college, including in the sciences and math. "Having women on the faculty in computer science, math, physics, or astronomy communicates to female students who might be interested in those fields that they can succeed—that these are not fields reserved for men only," she said.
Recruiting more female faculty and encouraging them to become mentors is especially important at USF, where 64 percent of undergraduates are women, said Aparna Venkatesan, assistant professor of physics and astronomy.
Venkatesan, who came to USF from a post-doctoral position at another university, said she chose USF because administrators were supportive of her professional and personal aspirations, including developing new academic courses and a desire to spend more time with her family.
"At USF, it's not just words," said Venkatesan, who joined the university in 2006 and has already developed several astronomy courses as well as minors in astronomy and astrophysics. "The university has institutionalized support for its faculty."
It's a strategy that has paid dividends, with a number of female hires joining the computer science, math, and science faculties, including four since 2008. On Turpin's watch, Arts and Sciences has tripled the number of full-time or tenure-track female faculty in computer science, math, physics, and astronomy, so that they now comprise 25 percent of the overall faculty in those departments.
More female faculty has meant a rising number of role models, mentors, and advisers who are willing to make phone calls and promote female students, said Juliet Spencer, assistant professor of biology and adviser to the USF Women in Science Club since its formation six years ago.
In addition to advising female students on the finer points of self-promotion — whether it be landing a research position at USF, a summer internship outside academia, or graduate school acceptance — female faculty help female students build self-confidence.
"The old adage 'seeing is believing' applies," Spencer said. "When female students work alongside someone of a similar background with comparable educational and career goals, they feel empowered."
Cementing the Connections
The good news is that in spite of persisting disparities in the number of female faculty and students in the sciences, significant progress has occurred in recent decades, said retired USF Professor of mathematics Millianne Lehmann. She should know. Before coming to USF in 1965, Lehmann attended college and graduate school at a time when female mathematicians were rare.
At USF, she broke barriers, becoming and remaining the university's only full-time female professor of mathematics until she retired in 2004. Two years later, physics added its first full-time female professor; computer science followed, hiring the department's first full-time female faculty in 2007; math recruited a replacement for Lehmann in 2008. Additional full-time female faculty have been added in these departments since.
More women landing top university teaching and administrative positions, while a critical ingredient, doesn't guarantee more female students in computer science, math, physics, and astronomy, however. Cementing the connections between female faculty and students is a critical next step.
USF must continue to establish more programs like Women in Science to recruit and retain female students, Spencer said. The club, an affiliate of the national Association for Women in Science, is made up of female science majors from a range of departments. Formed in 2003 with Turpin's support, its primary goal is to connect students with mentoring faculty. The club hosts regular forums for female scientists and other professionals to discuss career building, overcoming barriers, and GRE and MCAT preparation, as well as organizes an annual faculty research presentation dinner to connect students and faculty. Members also take part in San Francisco's annual breast cancer walk.
But, finding role models and mentors for themselves is only one side of the equation for Women in Science, said Noelle Brodeur, a junior biology major and the club's president. Engaging younger students is the other side. For the past four years, club members have put on a workshop as part of the Expanding Your Horizons in Math and Science colloquium at Skyline Community College in San Bruno to encourage more young women to study science.
The popular workshop, dubbed Cover Girl Chemists, explores the chemistry behind lipgloss, mascara, and other makeup products, breaking it down for middle school- and high school-level students, and using the topic as an entrée to discuss a wide variety of scientific fields.
Women in Science also takes part in a recurring program for middle school students, both female and male, inviting them to USF to investigate a "crime scene" using the university's labs. The day-long workshop teaches techniques for lifting fingerprints, and analyzing blood and water.
On top of being a tool to attract younger students to math and science, taking part in such activities allows USF students to develop their own mentoring skills, Spencer said.
"We wanted to give back to the community and show young students how much fun science can be, that it doesn't have to be hard, and that everyday things such as lip gloss come from simple but exciting science experiments," Brodeur said.
Similarly, Rollins, the academic adviser for the Women in Computer Science group, leads a summer workshop for high school students to introduce them to computer programming and simple robotics, a field many of them may never have considered studying or pursuing as a career path.
Beyond Bits and Bytes
Lauren Chinn, now a USF sophomore, enjoyed the week-long computer workshop so much between her junior and senior years in high school that she not only ended up enrolling at USF, but also majoring in computer science.
"I had no idea what computer science was, but I read an announcement in my high school bulletin advertising the free program at USF and thought it would be a great way to find out if I really liked it," said Chinn, a double major in math who recently decided to pursue a master's degree in teaching as part of USF's dual-degree program.
Reaching students at the middle school and high school levels is one of the best recruiting tools available, according to USF Trustee Teresa Win, who helped launch the computer science summer workshop, as well as the Women in Science Club and Women in Computer Science group.
"It's not all bits and bytes," said Win, a successful entrepreneur, former data architect at Apple, and network engineer at Cisco Systems. When attempting to pique female students' interest, she points to her experience at "stylish" Apple, where a product's aesthetic design, whether an iPod or an iMac, is an integral part of the development process, and the growing "intersection of technology and medicine," where a computer engineer can see the device she creates improve the quality of others' lives.
While studies have shown that support groups and clubs can help with retention and recruitment at both the pre-college and college level, Spencer cautioned that such programs take time to produce increased female college enrollment as younger students work toward graduation.
"It has really only been a few years since we added our first female physics professor and first full-time tenure track female computer science professor, so I think we may not see definite signs of improvement for a few years yet," Spencer said.
Indeed, since 2003, the overall number of female students at USF earning undergraduate degrees in computer science, math, and physics has, so far, remained constant.
But, in at least one department, the mometum may have begun to shift. In 2006, USF ranked among a select few universities nationwide to award 40 percent or more of its undergraduate physics degrees to women, according to Educational Ranking Annual 2006, the latest edition published.
A Center for Science
Not content to rest on its accomplishments in recruiting female faculty and establishing support clubs, the College of Arts and Sciences has also begun piloting a new mentoring network and some departments are tweaking their curriculum.
Female and male students in the mentoring program can search online the profiles and career interests of alumni from a range of backgrounds, including technology, education, science, and law, and reach out to them via email. These students, high-performing juniors and seniors, can volunteer to mentor underclassmen as well.
Another way departments are evolving to attract both female and male students is by revamping degree requirements. Computer science, for example, recently modified its curriculum to allow more flexibility for double majors and study abroad, a request that department heads heard from students interested in combining computers with subjects such as health care or the nonprofit sector.
Perhaps one of the university's biggest commitments to attracting scientists, students, and faculty, female as well as male, is the planned overhaul of USF's aging labs. The proposed Center for Science and Innovation—a state-of-the-art 59,000-square-foot, $50 million addition to the aging Harney Science Center—will be a major draw, Turpin said.
"As a recruitment tool, not to mention educationally, the Center will launch USF into a very different position vis-à-vis science," Turpin said. "It will provide an ideal environment for us to nurture and grow the next generation of scientists, both female and male."
Even before that, Win—known for thinking big—wants USF to begin positioning itself as a crossroads for scientific discussion and ideas in the Bay Area. The key is to build on USF's track record of placing graduates in top medical schools and doctoral science programs as well as the university's well regarded nursing school, Win said.
"The next step," Win said, "is to offer seminars and forums on topics in the natural or physical sciences, perhaps a local research symposium—anything to expose Bay Area students and professionals to the sciences at USF."
Doing so, she said, will make USF a beacon for female and male scientists alike who come to realize the university has its own personalized and socially conscious approach to educating students in fields like health care, environmental science, and computer science.
That socially conscious approach to giving back is why Chinn, who holds down a B+ average and volunteers as a tutor at her former high school in San Francisco, decided that she wanted to take her education in computer science and math into the classroom as an educator.
"When I become a high school teacher, I want to try to encourage females who seem gifted in math to pursue it," Chinn said. "That's just part of USF's core values that I believe in and support."