Spark of Innovation

The Impact of a Growth Mindset on Women in STEM Majors and Careers

Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics.

Together they make up STEM.

Of course, those who study STEM subjects in college and go on to take jobs in STEM related fields are the ones who end up researching, developing, and creating things that change lives.

One example that easily comes to mind is the double helix model of DNA.

Francis Crick and James Watson won Nobel prizes for their work for developing a better model of DNA. From this research we now have the knowledge that DNA is set up as a double helix. Though this seems unimpressive today, without understanding the concept of how DNA is set up then further research into how DNA is replicated and arranged would not be possible. Nor could there be research into how genetic diseases are caused or passed on, or possible treatments for such ailments.

Though scientists have barely scraped the surface of such a vast ocean of knowledge, they have still come a long way from the beginning.

And Watson and Crick deserve the credit for getting that started.

…well, not entirely.

Watson and Crick did have a model of which they thought DNA was supposed to look like. Yet, by chance, Watson got a look at research done by another scientist, Rosalind Franklin. It was her work that initiated an idea in Watson who would then rework his findings to come up with the current model of DNA that is accepted today, the double helix.

Rosalind Franklin would not receive any credit for her work until after her death in 1958.

While this may seem to be just a footnote in the volumes of history, it still bears noting; at the time that Crick and Watson were about to publish their findings, Franklin had also finished her work and was closer to publishing.

It should also be mentioned that at this time in Franklin’s life she was working on transferring from King’s College where she had found herself at odds with the staff, to Birkbeck College. It may have been she was the only women working there, it have been her cold demeanor, or some of both? Either way Franklin was not satisfied with her standing there and had decided to leave.

What could have been?

Rosalind Franklin is one of the most prominent role models for women in STEM majors and related career paths.

Yet, what if her colleagues had chosen not to look upon her as a lab technician, but as an equal?

What if she’d been in an environment where she did not feel threatened?

What if her own father had not been against her going to college, something he was opposed to all women doing?

What other innovations and discoveries could Rosalind Franklin accomplished in her life?

While she is one of the most prominent role models for women in STEM majors and related career paths, she is also a haunting example of the difficulties that women face when they choose to pursue a STEM related major in college, or a career path.

Even today, nearly seventy years later, women occupy only 24% of the STEM careers and related jobs, while men take up the other roughly 75%.

What innovations could we be missing out on?

Why is it so hard?

STEM fields and their related careers, as one could easily assume, are not for the faint of heart. Persistence, determination, relentlessness would be required, though no one will put that on a job description. This is due, in large part, to the higher amount of mental preparation needed before one can even begin a bachelor’s degree in college.

Careers in this field deal with hefty amounts of research, development, preparation, disappointment, and analysis. High levels of math, a firm grasp of spatial relations, and advanced problem solving skills are just the beginning of the requirements that one would need to succeed.

One possible culprit for this? Maybe it’s the ‘M’ in STEM?


Obviously, math is a difficult subject. If at first adding one to two doesn’t come easily, then just wait until negative numbers, fractions, decimals, and for reasons unbeknownst to sane people, there are imaginary numbers out there as well.

And that’s just the beginning…

Because men occupy over 75% of the STEM jobs out there, then it’s easy to assume that men, for some genetic reason, are just better at math.


In an experiment, conducted within the psychology department of the University of Michigan, 30 female students and 24 male students, all in their freshman year, took a section of the GRE in math. All the students involved strongly identified with math. Yet, when the group was split in two, one group was told that, generally, male students had performed better on this section of the GRE than female students.

The results?

On a test of 30 questions, when corrected for guessing, the male students, on average, scored 25 out of 30.

The female students?

On average, they scored five out of 30.

What about that second group?

The second group of test-takers were told that both genders had scored well on the test. Men didn’t do better than women, and women didn’t do better than men.

The scores came back that the women in the group, on average and after correcting for guesses, had results of 17 out of 30. The men? 19 out of 30.

So while it may still show that men have an advantage, maybe genetically, maybe arbitrarily, that when the gender bias is taken out of the equation, women perform substantially higher.

Then why aren’t more women in STEM Careers?

While there are those who do exit college and enter the STEM careers, there is attrition happening, and at an even higher rate among women.

This may be in part to the gender bias that STEM Careers are a ‘man’s’ job. It may also have to do with women needing to take time off to start and raise a family, something men generally don’t do. This could end up hurting women in careers that are tenure track, or being seen as ‘less committed’ in their work than their male counterparts. The results being women are given less fulfilling tasks, or end up not coming back to their jobs. It may also have to do with women marrying outside of their job field.

While there is ongoing research as to why women are not sticking with their STEM Career after college, there is a new movement taking place to keep women in their current positions.

It’s been suggested that women who do find themselves in an environment where they do not feel welcome can try to find a mentor. If one isn’t easy to find then join a professional organization. It’s also been suggested that women educate themselves on gender differences in communication.

While these suggestions are helpful and it can help shift the overall feel in a work environment away from male-centric, it is still a short term solution to the problem.

What if women are recruited more in higher education for STEM related majors?

True, men do occupy more of the STEM field than women do. But wouldn’t a simple fix be to initiate greater recruitment of women into STEM majors?

That could work.

However, one must also take into account that not all those who graduate with a STEM degree, both women and men, will go on to get a job in the STEM fields.

For instance;

Men earn 82% of bachelor degrees in Engineering,

Women only earn 18%

Men earn 82% of bachelor degrees in Computer Sciences,

Women only earn 18%

Men earn 81% of bachelor degrees in Physics,

Women only earn 19%

When it comes to graduation, of the STEM degrees as a whole, only 30.7% of those degrees earned are by women. Since not all of those who graduate with a STEM degree enter a STEM field, this possibly leads to the 24% of women in STEM careers.

Going the Distance

The lack of women represented in STEM careers can be attributed to the low number of women seeking STEM majors when they enter college. As with those who enter the job field and then decide to leave, the number of women who end up graduating with a degree in a STEM related major are significantly lower than those who start them.

Could it possibly be the difficulty of their chosen major?

As mentioned before, these career paths and their preceding educational requirements are daunting. If there is a lack of ability to begin with, then there is a higher likelihood that a student will bow out before completion. Part of the reason, as with anyone who’s gone through college can attest, a student may have started one degree, found out it wasn’t for them, and switched majors to find something more to their liking. Something with less math involved.

What if said student, especially a woman, wasn’t lacking in mathematical ability at all?

They simply thought they were lacking?

In a male-dominated field, when those surrounding a female student are doing better when it comes to the large amount of analytical work involved, then it’s easy for that struggling student to think of herself as inadequate. And while students will change majors throughout their undergraduate careers, if it were possible to instill in them, from an early age, especially women, that they were not ‘just not good at this,’ could it lead to lower attrition rates in STEM majors?

What if it could have the opposite effect; a rise in women entering into such degrees, and then onto a career path in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics?

Or to ask the question in another way; what innovations are we missing out on if women continue to be underrepresented in STEM careers?

Perception is Key

As mentioned before, men make up over 75% of the STEM fields. This leads to the unconscious assumption that men are just better at it. This is in no way meant to take away from the men who have made discoveries that have changed the course of history.

But if men are the only ones seen doing it, what does that say to girls in school?

While elevating female role models into the collective consciousness will help foster a better environment for girls and young women to enter the sciences, there is more that can be done.

But first, perception has to change.

Carol Dweck, a social and developmental psychologist at Stanford University, has spoken about the need for students to stop seeing themselves as ‘smart.’ They instead need to switch from a way of thinking where if one doesn’t ‘get it’ immediately, then they must not be good at it all. This kind of thinking drives students away from struggle. And struggle is key in STEM degrees and careers.

“We talk about [struggle] as an unfortunate thing, but when you think about a career in science or math or anything, of course you struggle. That’s the name of the game! If you’re going to discover something new or invent something new, it’s a struggle.” — Carol Dweck, Why so Few?

Many a student today, while not intentionally, has been taught that if they understand something right away, they’re smart. If they struggle with something, that’s not wrong, the student just needs to work harder to get it. They’re not smart at it, thus, they have to work harder for it. Thus students become skilled at avoiding subjects they struggle with.

This leads to the unconscious ‘knowledge’ that intelligence is fixed. There are those that are born with the talent for solving mathematical equations. And generally, those are boys.

Girls are the ones who have to work harder at math, and thus, they just aren’t ‘smart’ enough for a STEM job.

They would have to struggle in order to succeed.

According to Dweck, what if that perception was changed?

Fixed v. Growth

The type of thinking outlined previously is what Dweck refers to as ‘a fixed mindset.’ Intelligence is an inborn, uncontrolled trait. If one is good at something, then they’re born to be good at that, while if they struggle with something, then they weren’t born to do that, and thus, should avoid it.

But what if intelligence were viewed as a muscle?

Muscles can be trained, conditioned, improved upon through systematic and intentional exercise.

A brain can be handled that way as well.

Brains can be trained, conditioned, and improved upon through systematic and intentional exercise.

This is a growth mindset. “Intelligence is a changeable, malleable attribute that can be developed through effort,” says Dweck in ‘Why so Few?’

A growth mindset leads students to believe that even if they don’t understand something right away, that’s okay. Mastery takes time. Mastery involves mistakes. Mistakes can be learned from. Mistakes challenge one to grow, learn, acquire knowledge.

This type of thinking can lead students to not shy away from difficult tasks. In some cases, students actually seek out struggles with the belief that they’ll get better through the proper application of effort and determination. They will get smarter that way and achieve more.

Though this mindset can have a positive effect on all academic ventures, as well as personal endeavors, the results of a growth mindset have already shown a positive response in women.

Take, for instance, several hundred women enrolled in a calculus class at an elite university for a semester. These women, who opted to report their feelings on the class’s general environment and how they reacted to it over the course of the semester to a group of researchers, Carol Dweck among them, proved the power of a growth mindset.

Of the women who identified their particular class as having a fixed mindset, along with negative stereotypes towards women and math, at the end of the semester they reported having less of a desire to continue taking high level math courses. They simply felt like they didn’t belong.

Yet, the women who identified their classes as promoting a growth mindset ended the semester with a greater chance of continuing on in higher level math. Though negative stereotypes were still in attendance at these classes, the women reported feeling less affected by them.

A growth mindset has been shown, as Dweck says, “…to maintain a spark of interest.”

It can all start with a spark

Anything worthwhile is not easy. Any pursuit of a STEM degree and subsequent STEM career are even more so.

This is why persistence, determination, relentlessness are needed more than a grasp of spatial relations, imaginary numbers, and analytical skills. Those who adopt a growth mindset will come to see challenges as a good thing. That mistakes aren’t bad things, but something to be learned from that will get them closer to success.

Yet fostering this mindset is not a simple task, even at an early age. But it is not an impossible one.

Even those who are well past their ‘school days’ can still change their mindset, a little bit at a time with some effort and persistence.

According to Dweck, some key points to remember when working towards instilling and honing a growth mindset.

· Encourage passion, dedication, and self-improvement- these lead to innovations and contributions.

· Value the challenges, the mistakes, and the effort-

these lead to growth and learning.

· Intellect can be gained- it’s not something someone has at birth.

· Focus on process over product- a student may not get the right answer, but focusing on how the student works to solve the problem in front of them so they worry less about ‘getting it right,’ and instead aim for mastering a process.

The Right Mindset

Fostering the right mindset, a growth mindset, can propel anyone towards greatness, especially women. When faced with the challenges of a STEM career, women can become discouraged if they believe they don’t ‘get it’ right away, or they started the job already lacking the fundamentals necessary.

Instead, start identifying math as a ‘learned skill’ rather than something innate in people. There may be some talent there to begin with, but it doesn’t mean that’s all one has to work with.

By communicating a growth mindset, though it will take time, the effects of negative stereotypes against women can be reduced, and eventually become a thing of the past. Along the way more and more women can enter colleges and universities with the intent to start and complete a STEM degree, and move on into a STEM career.

Who knows what innovations are waiting for us?

“Energy and persistence conquer all things.”- Benjamin Franklin

About the Author

Kyle Weckerly is a freelance writer, specializing in white papers, who’s interests range from science fiction to education. As a former science teacher himself it’s obvious he’d focus on these and similar subjects. It’s not just because he’s taught in these fields, but because he has a genuine curiosity about such things.

Stop by to see his work and find out if his services are a good match for you in developing your own educational content.


Brenda Maddox. Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA. New York City: HarperCollins. 2002. 416pp.

Anne Sayre. Rosalind Franklin and DNA. New York City: W. W. Norton. 1975. 221pp.

National Girls Collaborative Project- “The State of Girls and Women in STEM,” fact sheet. Copyright 2014.

Catherine Hill, Ph.D., Christianne Corbett, Andresse St. Rose, Ed.D.: Why so Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. AAUW, Copyright 2010.

David Beede, Tiffany Julian, David Langdon, George McKittrick, Beethika Khan, and Mark Doms: Women in STEM: A Gender Gap to Innovation. U.S. Department of Commerce; Economics and Statistics Administration, ESA Issue Brief #4–11, August 2011.

Ryan Munce, Edie Fraser: Where are the STEM Students? What are their Career Interests? Where are the STEM Jobs? 2012–2013. My College Options® & STEMconnector® Copyright 2012 Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM). 2015