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Research: Improve Gender Equity in STEM by Emphasizing Environmental Protection

Research: Improve Gender Equity in STEM by Emphasizing Environmental Protection 

New research from Cornell University suggests that colleges and universities might be able to improve the representation of women in STEM fields by playing up the relation of those fields to the environment.

Researchers Dafna Gelbgiser and Kyle Albert, of the university's Center for the Study of Inequality (CSI), looked at nine million degree recipients in the United States from 2009 to 2014 and found that, in both STEM and non-STEM areas, green fields were systematically more gender balanced. The researchers suggest that such balance is the result of fewer gender norms and stereotypes in the green fields, which tend to be newer.

"The underlying implication of our results is that universities can likely increase the representation of men, or women, in gender-imbalanced fields like engineering or education if they emphasize their potential relation to the environmental movement," said Gelbgiser, a postdoctoral researcher at CSI, in a report about the research. "Our findings suggest that gender balance in STEM fields is malleable and these emerging fields can be a force leading to greater equality in higher education."

The researchers also suggest that women, who have traditionally been drawn to more care-oriented fields, may find STEM fields relating to environmental protection more appealing as they combine both caring and technical aspects.

"The 21st century has ushered in explosive growth at higher education institutions of such green fields as sustainability studies and environmental science; the total number of degrees awarded in green programs have increased by about 81 percent," according to information released by Cornell. "Although some of these fields are rooted in the life sciences — the STEM area with the greatest gender balance — most of them evolved from other fields, such as architecture, law and engineering, which have traditionally been male-dominated. The researchers found the greater the gender imbalance of the parent field, the greater the difference in the gender composition of green programs."

"Just by institutions changing how academic fields are framed, they can create better gender balance," said Albert, in a news release. "If universities carefully frame their curricular offerings to emphasize different themes, they can reduce the level of gender inequality in course enrollments."

The full paper is available at

About the Author

Joshua Bolkan is contributing editor for Campus Technology, THE Journal and STEAM Universe. He can be reached at [email protected].

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