International Higher Education

International Recruitment Content Marketing Series: International Women in STEM

International Women in STEM

In admissions circles, the rise in popularity of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) programs among international students is nothing new. Since new regulations came into force in 2008, allowing additional optional practical training (OPT) work authorization time (initially 29 total months, now up to 36 months) for each degree level completed (bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate), international students pursuing STEM academic programs has jumped significantly.

According to the Department of Homeland Security’s July 2018 SEVIS by the Numbers data charts, 47.1% of the 1.12 million international students currently in the United States pursue STEM majors. Interestingly, females now account for one-third of all international STEM students. The growth in this area between 2010 and 2018 is staggering: a 229% increase – approximately 100,000 more female international students are studying STEM programs since 2010. Clearly, what started back in 2008 has become a consistent upward trend for women coming to U.S. colleges for STEM degrees. But there is still much work to be done.

Women in STEM Stats

According to Catalyst, a global non-profit building workplaces that work for women, the company released fascinating stats in January this year that provided a global perspective on how various countries fair in relation to women in STEM fields, both in study and the workplace. Coincidentally, the data reflects that overall U.S. STEM-degrees sought by all women mirrors the 33% of international women STEM majors now in the United States.

From this data and statistical confirmation of similar trends in other countries, the physical, biological, and health sciences draw a higher percentage of women. Female international students’ challenges in breaking into STEM fields vary dramatically depending on their home country’s education system. Interestingly, in India in 2015-16, women accounted for over 50% of science bachelor’s degree graduates and 47.7% of IT and computer science graduates.

Tapping into the movement

A U.S. News Education article from 2016 spoke to some of the initial motivations of students. While overseas students have long seen the quality of education as the greatest attraction of a U.S. higher education, clearly the opportunities for potentially significant work afterward is a great motivator. Our challenge is meeting these future students where they are. The obstacles are many for higher education institutions seeking to address this need to provide prospective female students access to STEM programs, as a recent QS Top Universities article suggested. But few worthier goals exist in international education.

As with many issues in higher ed, the core root of these disparities is often traced back to the system of schooling years earlier. So, what have U.S. colleges been doing earlier in the cycle to attract female students to their science, tech, engineering and math related programs? Many institutions with a healthy focus on STEM majors do outreach into local schools as well as host summer camps, like Ohio Northern University’s Camp GEMS (Girls in Engineering Math and Sciences) each July for 7th and 8th grade girls.

Other organizations and school systems nationwide also support STEM programming for all students beginning as early as 1st and 2nd grade. One group focuses on expanding the interest of girls in computer science, Girls Who Code. This non-profit, founded in 2013, has now served over 90,000 girls primarily in middle and high school ages through a variety of after school clubs, summer immersion programs, and two-week intensive campus programs.

Whether a lack of identifiable female science and technology role models from their country, lack of encouragement to pursue STEM fields/interests as young girls, and/or lack of opportunities to do something “different” as perceived by the culture, the challenges are many. How institutions respond to these dilemmas can separate themselves from their competition.

Other campus examples

At the University of Arizona, its Women in Science and Engineering (WISE), represents a holistic effort to address the foundational issues involved in developing an educational culture that supports girls and women in pursuing STEM study and careers. Through partnerships with Girls Who Code and the Bio/Diversity Project in Arizona, as well as camps, community outreach, internships, scholarships, and even jobs, WISE has a broad and deep footprint in this vital area of educational advancement.

Future employment matters whether a male or female, domestic or international student. College students around the world, at some point in their educational journey, can obsess on this issue, and rightly so given the investment they and their families are making. How committed is your institution to addressing this concern? A fine example of how a university can stand out is happening at University of Illinois at Chicago with the Guaranteed Paid Internships Program (GPIP). This program, now in its fifth year, promises students with a minimum 3.2 GPA after their first-year, and who complete the Freshmen Engineering Success Program, a paid internship with one of the many corporate partners UIC has developed.

Utilize Hotcourses Insights, Next Steps

As part of any informed recruitment strategy, knowing where the pockets of interest are for your programs is a must. When utilizing the Hotcourses Insights Tool, looking at female prospective students who are interested in STEM fields, some useful results appear.

Prospective students in Brazil, India,Turkey and Russia, using Hotcourses international sites to research U.S. study options, have strong sources of female STEM prospects across the relevant subject areas. Targeted campaigns consisting of intriguing research projects, social media stories, faculty interviews, personalized emails, and current student videos (from their countries and/or in their fields) can speak directly to the interests of this highly sought-after demographic.

Of course, when looking at overall motivations for international students considering the United States, career prospects always rate near the top. For STEM students, this will continue to be the draw as long as the STEM OPT extension exists in the law. As a result, it is essential to focus on outcomes for international STEM graduates in terms of internships and job placements, graduate schools admitted to, etc. Keeping an eye on the competition, not only domestic rivals, but other destination countries, especially the UK, Australia, and Canada, must be part of the overall evaluation of where to focus institutional efforts. What is clear, the challenge of recruiting women, including international prospects, to STEM fields, requires a broad-based institutional commitment. It does take a village.

Is your campus actively recruiting female STEM students from abroad as well as domestically? Are you facing challenges? If so, let us know how we can help inform your good work.

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