Utah among lowest in nation when graduating women in non-traditional fields Part 1

Last month, as students across the state graduated from college, higher education institutions took notice of the fields women have earned a Bachelor’s degree in as well as those who haven’t.

Utah has one of the lowest college graduation rates for women in degrees of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) as well as business.

Individual institutions have been tracking this data as well as researchers, like Utah Valley University’s Dr. Susan Madsen, with the goal of using the data to come up with solutions to get women into these fields.

Madsen says while the national average for women graduating in STEM is about 30 percent, Utah is at 20 percent. Even worse is Utah women graduating in business at 30 percent while nationally women graduate in business at 50 percent.

“Some women don’t even open their minds to these fields,” Madsen says. “They could have loved it and been good at it, and made a difference in that area.”

It is interesting and important to note, Madsen says, that in Utah more women students graduate in trade fields like cosmetology and culinary arts than they do nationally. Utah women who are graduating at the Bachelor’s level are more likely to earn a degree in education, health, or social services according to a 2010 brief from the <a href=”http://www.uvu.edu/wep/pdf/UWEB%20Two%205-25-10.pdf”>Utah Women and Education Project</a>, a study in which Madsen was the lead researcher.

The study is being utilized by the recently commissioned Utah Women’s College Task Force, which was commissioned by Gov. Herbert in 2011 to figure out how to get more women to graduate from college since Utah is the lowest state with female college graduation rates. But the state should also pay attention to what women are graduating in, or more importantly, what they are not graduating in, Madsen points out.

Nationwide, women generally graduate less in non-traditional fields such as math and engineering, but the fact that Utah is even more behind is of particular concern.

“This issue matters to the economic development of the state,” Madsen says. “We have companies considering coming to Utah who are asking where they can get more women with MBAs. They want a more diverse workforce, and they can’t get it here.”

Another issue is that, generally, traditional female occupations are lower paying, and the fields like engineering and business are some of the highest paying fields.

“In today’s society you may never marry, or get divorced, or you may need to support you and your family and having a lower paying job can make that difficult,” Madsen says.


Elementary school teachers have a very set schedule and little flexibility, but the benefits of having a business degree are having flexibility, being able to work at home, start your own company, etc.

“And,” Madsen continues, “the most successful entrepreneurs are ones that have education. Accounting and leadership are also great skills to have to volunteer in the community.”

Figuring out the ‘why’ is just as important as the ‘how to fix it,’ and many institutions and companies are turning to Madsen to help find answers.

In Utah, a state with a strong emphasis on family and a high-birth rate, Madsen is finding women here see traditional female roles like elementary school teaching, nursing and social work as preparatory for having children.

“For some reason, women don’t see STEM and business as good fields for them to go into,” Madsen says. “Nearly every Utah university or college is concerned about this, and that is the discussion that is happening now – how do we change this.”

In her research, as well as studies done nationally, several things that need to happen have come to attention.

A social marketing campaign is needed to educate women about what STEM and business majors are and what these majors could make possible for them, Madsen said.

A serious issue is that in STEM majors there are very few female faculty, and for many women students it is hard for them to visualize themselves being successful in the field if they don’t have teacher role models like them, Madsen explains.

“The more female faculty, the more female students those fields attract,” Madsen said.

And along with that issue is that lack of female co-students, creating a chicken-and-egg scenario.  For example, in business management and leadership classes taught by Madsen at UVU it is not uncommon to have three women in a class of 36 students.

UVU is particularly low in graduating women in business at 19 percent. Utah State University seems to be faring a little better in business, with women making up about <a href=”http://usu.edu/aaa/pdf/graduation_report/GRADRP2011.pdf%20″>35 percent of 2011 graduates</a> (2012’s data will be available in September).

Engineering is a field very few women graduate from nationally, <a href=”http://www.uvu.edu/wep/pdf/UWEP%20IPEDS%202008%20Report.pdf%20″>about 18 percent</a>. In Utah, it is about 12 percent. Utah State University is particularly struggling, with women accounting for <a href=”http://usu.edu/aaa/pdf/graduation_report/GRADRP2011.pdf”>about nine percent of engineering graduates</a>.

“Many young women don’t want to go into a class where they are the exception. People look around and say ‘You’re the girl in the class,'” Madsen says. “We know from anecdotal evidence they will turn around and say, ‘This just isn’t a place I belong.'”

Part 2 Preview: Utah State University’s College of Engineering discusses what it is trying to do to graduate more women, and one female engineering graduate offers her point of view on the issue.

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