For many women at Georgetown University studying hard sciences like physics and computer science, isolation can encompass and overwhelm their academic experience. To increase female enrollment and retention in scientific fields where they are underrepresented, Georgetown University must actively promote community and mentorship for women.

At Georgetown, 60 percent of science majors in the class of 2021 are women, according to the Georgetown Office of Admissions, as reported by the Georgetown Voice. However, women make up only 44 percent of computer science majors and 36 percent of physics majors.

While these on-campus numbers seem unbalanced and disheartening, they are higher than the national average. Women made up 18 percent of computer science majors and 19 percent of physics majors in the United States in 2014, according to the National Science Foundation. Even more concerningly, the percentage of women enrolled in each of these fields has decreased by 4 percent since 2004.  

To better understand these numbers, I spoke with Elana Fertig, an associate professor of oncology and applied mathematics and statistics at Johns Hopkins University. Our conversation touched on many potential reasons why women avoid or leave the hard sciences, including implicit bias, sexual harassment and lack of role models. These problems also plague women in health sciences — fields where women make up more than 75 percent of all graduate students, according to a report from the Council of Graduate Schools.

While most of these factors were sadly expected, one stood out as distinct to computational sciences: community, or rather, lack thereof.

Hard science fields like physics and computer science undervalue the emotional intelligence that is essential for sensitivity to diversity and inclusion, leaving people from underrepresented groups, particularly women, feeling isolated. In this subset, as Fertig told me, “intelligence is valued above all else.”

The lack of diversity among peers and mentors is compounded by the fact that these fields are inherently less social than other sciences. These sciences, therefore, create a uniquely difficult environment for women.

Fortunately, institutions like Georgetown can still accomplish gender equality by promoting community through mentoring and community-building. Programs like online mentorship, workshops introducing women to one another and stronger promotion of women-focused professional organizations within the department could greatly improve the retention rates of women in hard sciences.

“Academic societies are playing an important role in advancing gender balance,” Fertig said. “At the same time, women are starting to spontaneously self-organize to provide peer support groups and conference meetups as never before.”

To its credit, the physics department at Georgetown seems committed, in some capacity, to the increased inclusion of women in the program. The posters adorning the walls of the physics department include a sign promoting an upcoming conference for women in physics, in addition to newspaper clippings discussing the gender disparities within the field. Perhaps the physics department at Georgetown has already begun promoting a sense of community for female students, which could explain their better-than-average enrollment statistics.

Even though Georgetown’s enrollment rates for women in these sciences are better than the national average, increased intra- and inter-program mentorship opportunities could improve them.

The Georgetown Women’s Center, the Georgetown Women’s Alliance, and Women in Science and Education provide mentorship opportunities for women in these and other fields. Hopefully, with time, increased mentorship opportunities and promotion of the importance of mentorship will increase both the enrollment and retention of women in these fields where they are severely underrepresented.

Allison O’Connell is an M.D./Ph.D. candidate in tumor biology. She is the president of Georgetown Women in Science and Education.

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