A new study argues that the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) “pipeline” metaphor is a flawed approach to increasing women and minority representation in STEM fields.
The STEM pipeline metaphor suggests students are properly prepared for careers in STEM fields once they complete an established sequence of educational and training procedures. Proponents of the pipeline believe women and minorities will see greater representation in STEM fields if more students from these demographics pursue the dominant educational route and don’t “leak” out along the way.
In a paper published by the Journal of Women and Minorities in Science and Engineering, three economists analyze the effectiveness of the STEM pipeline model and recommend further exploration of the pathways model, an alternative approach that encourages entry into STEM fields by way of multiple routes rather than a single one.
“For years and years we have used this pipeline metaphor for crafting and designing our interventions aimed at increasing minority and women participation in science and engineering,” said Samuel Myers Jr., the Roy Wilkins Professor of Human Relations and Social Justice at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs. “While that metaphor may be useful for describing the dominant educational route to STEM professions, there are alternative pathways that also offer routes to success in the disciplines.”
Myers and Kaye Husbands Fealing, chair of the Ivan Allen College School of Public Policy at Georgia Tech, are building the case to change the metaphor.
“Let’s change the metaphor, and maybe we will have better policy prescriptions that are more fine-tuned to the different groups of people we’re looking at,” Husbands Fealing said. “That was what got us into trying to use data to make a case for why a pathways approach and metaphor would be more consistent with what is actually happening than continuing to just talk about the pipeline.”
The Roots of Underrepresentation
Myers, Husbands Fealing, and research assistant Yufeng Lai used the field of chemistry as a case study for examining representation ratios, a statistic comparing different groups’ representation in the field to their share of the overall population. Using regression analysis techniques often employed in economics, they deconstructed the representation ratios in order to produce results that could be compared across different explanatory factors impacting one’s probability of working as a chemist.
“Using regression methods to deconstruct representation ratios requires a little more complicated modeling and takes a bit more transformation,” Myers said. “The advantage of the methods we use is that we come out with very clear and easy-to-interpret policy implications.”
Given that the pipeline model involves extended educational training that culminates in post-baccalaureate degrees, the researchers hypothesized that increases in the supply of women and minorities with graduate degrees in STEM fields would correlate with an increase in their representation in the field of chemistry. Their findings, based on data from the Integrated Public Use Microdata Series-Current Population Survey (IPUMS-CPS), did not support the hypothesis, suggesting supply-side issues are not the root cause of underrepresented demographics in the field and that the STEM pipeline is not an optimal means of increasing representation.
The paper recommends the exploration of an alternative pathways approach that accommodates women and minorities who come about their interest in pursuing STEM careers through routes that divert from the normal pipeline and often involve community colleges and minority serving institutions, rather than major graduate research institutions. Future research, the paper says, might formally model these pathways to STEM careers and incorporate tests to determine whether the existing pool of minority STEM workers followed conventional or alternative routes to entry into STEM fields.
Husbands Fealing compares the implications of an alternative pathways approach to the G.I. Bill, which encouraged World War II veterans to attend universities and vocational schools, as a successful implementation of the pathways model. She believes a similar approach would make STEM education more accessible to individuals who aren’t easily accommodated by the dominant pipeline, such as young parents and those who are reintegrating after incarceration.
“You went to war and came back and had the G.I. Bill,” Husbands Fealing said. “You weren’t told no. You were told here is a way of getting through that’s a different pathway.”
Looking ahead, Husbands Fealing and Myers would like to explore changes in the representation of women and minorities in other STEM fields — their study of the field of chemistry is an extension of a paper they published in 2012 examining women and minority representation in biology, chemistry, and medicine. Since the outcomes and barriers to entry differ between STEM fields, Husbands Fealing said, pathways research should study “slices” of STEM rather than lumping all STEM fields and disciplines together.
A Passion for Pathways
Myers and Husbands Fealing’s passion for studying the value of the pathways model is rooted in personal experience.
Myers said his first exposure to the alternative pathways hypothesis came from his co-authorship of the book Faculty of Color in Academe with Caroline Turner, former president of the American Education Research Association and an early proponent of the pathways model. As the chair of the National Science Foundation’s Committee on Equal Opportunities in Science and Engineering, he found that successful scientists who pursued alternative pathways were often reluctant to discuss them in interviews.
“Ironically, many members of the committee who had attended community colleges and became successful deans or department chairs did not list their community college work on their CVs,” Myers said.
Husbands Fealing’s family immigrated to the United States where they pursued college degrees. Her father was an economics professor and her mother was a nurse.
“They were unusual in that they made pathways in their respective fields while retooling and raising a child,” Husbands Fealing said.” Why limit our STEM fields only to those who discover its appeal as children? If we remove barriers to the fixed process of STEM education, we may really be able to open up participation.”
Husbands Fealing and Myers contend they aren’t proposing to lower standards for entry into STEM fields. Instead, they seek a new metaphor to direct policy decisions that accommodate more women and minorities who are interested in pursuing STEM careers.
In order to have more effective policy, we need to look at varying pathways for getting people into STEM fields,” Husbands Fealing said. “We can’t let that concept of a pipeline narrow the focus of interventions that could actually be very productive and very useful.”