Why do women abandon math and science majors? Researcher examines vexing issue

Hughes examined factors that influenced undergraduate women to stick with a degree in a STEM field. Her research focused on 26 women who attended Florida State between 2006 and 2010.

Back when Roxanne Hughes was teaching high school science and coaching track, she noticed an inherent difference between boys and girls — both in the classroom and on the field. Boys, it seemed, were supremely more confident. Girls tended to doubt their own abilities.

“Even when I was coaching, I noticed that a boy could spend the season on the bench and still think he could get a college scholarship,” she recalled, “while a girl who was an MVP might think she couldn’t get one.”

Hughes, who recently earned a doctorate in educational policy from Florida State University and now works as an educational outreach coordinator at the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory, ultimately explored her observations — though from a slightly different angle — in her doctoral dissertation.

That dissertation, “The Process of Choosing Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) Careers by Undergraduate Women: A Narrative Life History Analysis,” investigated the reason many undergraduate women abandon science and math for other majors. (An abstract, as well as a link to a PDF version of the full dissertation, is available here.)

And now that research is winning high praise.

Hughes was honored in February by Phi Delta Kappa International (PDK), the premier professional association for educators, which named her research one of five outstanding doctoral dissertations internationally.

“This year, PDK received more than 40 exceptional entries for its dissertation award, and Dr. Hughes’ research stood out to the review panel,” said William Bushaw, PDK International’s executive director. “Research is central to PDK’s mission, and we are thrilled to honor Dr. Hughes’ work. She has made an important contribution toward advancing the field of education.”

Hughes examined factors that influenced undergraduate women to stick with a degree in a STEM field. Her research focused on 26 women who attended Florida State between 2006 and 2010. Fifty percent of the women she studied — all of whom had Bright Futures scholarships, high SAT scores and were heading into STEM majors — decided to pursue other fields midway through their college careers.

Those who ultimately completed STEM degrees had some important confidence builders in common, including positive support from parents and educators, strong peer networks with other STEM students, and the opportunity to conduct research at the undergraduate level.

Meeting role models was also a factor, probably because it put a human face on potential career paths, according to Hughes’ findings. So was having a genuine — and deep — interest in the academic subject.

“Choosing the field for the money or because you wanted to help others wasn’t enough,” said Hughes, whose articles on women in STEM fields have been published in several peer-reviewed journals including the International Journal for Gender Science and Technology.

Hughes credits Florida State’s supportive graduate-school environment for the success of her dissertation as well as her major professor, Stacy Rutledge, an associate professor of educational leadership and policy studies in the College of Education. She also credits the support and interest of her current boss, Pat Dixon, a scholar-scientist who heads the Center for Integrating Research and Learning at the magnet lab, where Hughes works as a postdoctoral researcher.

Hughes decided to pursue a doctorate in educational policy for two reasons: “I was interested in answering my own questions as a teacher,” she said. “Also, I wanted to better understand who develops educational policy and understand how it ends up the way it does by the time it reaches a teacher’s classroom.”

For more information on Hughes’ research, contact her at (850) 645-8179 or hughes@magnet.fsu.edu.