Peer Review

The Twenty-First-Century Case for Inclusive Excellence in STEM

The urgent need for science, math, engineering, and technology (STEM) higher education reform in the United States is fueled by projections that our labor market will require greater expansion for those trained in science and engineering than in any other sector in the twenty-first century. This challenge is compounded by the fact that improved global economies and opportunities abroad will no longer allow this country to rely on foreign-born talent to meet its STEM workforce demands. To remain competitive within this shifting context, America must aggressively pursue the full participation of all of its college-age population—and most especially the women and women of color who embody an untapped source of talent for meeting the nation’s needs. This mandate will require institutions of higher education, and the professional societies that support them, to depart from their continued reliance on incremental change strategies and, instead, to fearlessly embrace more radical shifts in organizational paradigms, along with the uncertainties accompanied by them.

Inclusive Excellence as A Catalyst for Transformative Change

This issue of Peer Review captures that spirit, propelling us forward into a series of real and provocative discourses designed to disrupt our present understanding of the academy, and to underscore the need for inclusive excellence as a catalyst for transformative change. Given the urgency imposed by our global challenges, the evolving nature of our disciplines, and the confounding complexities of our current social context, our collective actions toward fortifying the nation’s STEM enterprise must be bold, swift, precise, and inclusive.

We must begin by retaining students who are already pursuing science, engineering, and mathematics degrees in college. According to recent data from the National Science Foundation (NSF), over 30 percent of women, including women of color, who were first-year college students in 2010 expressed intentions to major in science and engineering fields, just 11 percent fewer than their male counterparts (NSF 2013). Despite this encouragingly high level of interest at the baccalaureate level, the representation of undergraduate women significantly declines by the time they graduate. Of particular note is the disturbing fact that between 2001 and 2010, the percentage of women earning baccalaureate degrees in the field of computer science—an area of critical need—decreased by 39 percent! The same pattern holds true for minority students who plan to major in STEM at the same rate as white students, but who are far less likely than their counterparts to persist in the field to degree completion.

While considerable federal and private foundation investment has targeted the recruitment and retention of women and other underrepresented students in STEM, one potent source for leveraging change in higher education— women faculty— continues to remain overlooked and underutilized. Ongoing research regarding women student participation and performance in STEM underscores the ways in which institutional transformation relies on creating conditions in which women faculty can thrive. Bettinger and Long (2005) have concluded that the presence of women faculty in community colleges, minority-serving institutions, and predominantly white universities results in enriched mentoring relationships that lead to academic success for women students. Additionally, Trower and Chait (2002) have confirmed that the positive effects of the presence of same race/same gender faculty on retention rates are even more pronounced among women students of color. Overall, women faculty of color often serve as sources of vital social support and community connection for underrepresented students in general. Therefore, if we are to consider the most effective means of fostering a diverse STEM workforce, then the matter of gender equity in STEM at all faculty ranks as well as among student majors emerges as a national imperative for higher education reform. This in turn requires our careful understanding of both historical and contemporary influences on trends in gender equity.

The articles in this Peer Review collectively explore this issue. The historical view presented below not only highlights the formal structures that limited the participation of women of color in STEM over the years, but also showcases how they mirror modern day institutional barriers that continue to marginalize all women in academic STEM fields. On the surface, this persistent and systemic exclusion of women would indicate that there has been no progress. Quite the opposite is true. Recent data from the National Science Foundation (NSF 2013) indicate that the number of women in academic STEM disciplines has steadily increased in recent years to 46 percent in four-year institutions, well above the 30 percent level reported in 2006 (Burrelli 2008). However, we are cautioned that aggregated data can be extremely misleading. It is true that the number of women in the academic STEM disciplines has increased, but it is important to note that in several STEM disciplines, women remain disproportionately underrepresented, especially in such fields as engineering and physics. Moreover, women are precipitously “lost” at points of transitions to upper professorial ranks in all STEM disciplines. Collectively, women at the assistant, associate, and full professor levels make up 40.6 percent, 33.9 percent, and 19.4 percent of full-time faculty members, respectively. For underrepresented minority women—who comprise only 4.5 percent, 3.7 percent and 1.2 percent of the assistant, associate, and full professors—there is even greater underrepresentation at all levels of the professoriate (NSF 2013).

Many institutions of higher education, several of which are featured in this issue of Peer Review, have creatively endeavored to ameliorate STEM gender disparities at the baccalaureate, doctoral, and faculty levels. With investments from both internal and external funding sources, such as the NSF ADVANCE program, these institutional exemplars have systematically incorporated gender and gender–race intersectional sensitivity into the fabric of their institutional, departmental, and programmatic efforts. These culturally sensitive approaches come at a critical turning point in the history of the academy when faculty are simultaneously expected to make herculean advancements in more innovative and effective teaching practices, scholarly productivity, and grantsmanship while pursuing deeply engaged lives in a technologically advanced society. This cacophony of increasing and conflicting responsibilities is particularly challenging for women faculty in STEM fields who continue to be marginalized in the academy, are disproportionately burdened with domestic responsibilities, and are differentially affected by hostile departmental climates.

Clearly, there is much to be learned from our authors, and still even more to consider as STEM higher education reform evolves. This issue offers a necessary first step only—admitting that there is a larger problem which can only be remedied through radical departures from our efforts to date. We need a fundamental reconsideration of women faculty as a powerful and untapped resource for meeting our goal of achieving a well-prepared and highly diversified STEM workforce, now and in the future.


Bettinger, E. P., and B. T. Long. 2005. Addressing the Needs of Under-Prepared Students in Higher Education: Does College Remediation Work? Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research.

Burrelli, J. 2008. “Thirty-Three years of Women in S&E Faculty Positions.” National Science Foundation InfoBrief, NSF08-308. Arlington, VA: National Science Foundation.

National Science Foundation, Division of Science Resources Statistics. 2013. Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering: 2013, NSF 13–304. Arlington, VA; National Science Foundation.

Trower, C., and R. Chait. 2002. “Forum: Faculty Diversity Why Women and Minorities Are Underrepresented in the Professoriate, and Fresh Ideas to Induce Needed Reform.” Harvard Magazine 104.4: 33–37.

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