Out-of-class contact with math faculty and persistence of undergraduate women majoring in math

Despite decades of research and retention initiatives, women still hold only about 42% of bachelor’s degrees in mathematics—a number that has been declining in recent years (NCES, 2010). Many factors can contribute to women’s decisions to persist in mathematics or depart from the field. Lack of women math faculty (Bottia et. al, 2015; Simon et al., 2016; Sonnert et al., 2007), negative stereotypes about women’s mathematical aptitude (O’Brien & Crandall, 2003; Steele et al., 2002), and perceptions of a chilly climate (Brainard & Carlin, 1998; Sandler, as cited by Dixon, 2013) can all contribute to capable women deciding to leave math and pursue other disciplines. Conversely, women may be more likely to persist in math if they see examples of women who are successful in the field (Canes & Rosen, 1995; Xian, Zafar, & Xie, 2009), have the opportunity to take classes taught by female faculty (Bettinger & Long, 2005; Griffith, 2010; Price, 2010), or feel a sense of belonging in the math community (Good & Dweck, 2012). Faculty play an important role in many of these factors that can influence women’s persistence in, or attrition from, math. Several studies have shown a connection between persistence of women in math and various interactions with same-gender faculty. For example, Price (2010) found that there was a relationship between persistence of women majoring in math and the number of courses they had taken that were taught by female faculty. Carrell, Page, & West (2010) observed that higher proportions of female math faculty were linked to increased persistence of undergraduate women in math, but did not delve into specific types of contact or interaction between students and faculty. None of these studies addressed the potential association between out-of-class interaction with female faculty and persistence of women in math. According to Tinto’s Theory of Student Drop-Out (1975), both out-of-class connections as well as in-class connections with faculty are important for students to be academically and socially integrated into their educational community, which in turn leads to a deeper sense of commitment to their educational pursuits and an increased likelihood of persistence. - Statement of Problem - The purpose of this study was to determine the relationship between persistence of undergraduate women majoring in math and out-of-class interactions with same-gender (female) math instructors at a large public four-year research institution. This study explored the relationship between out-of-class contact with math faculty and persistence of undergraduate women majoring in mathematics. Additionally, it sought to understand whether out-of-class contact specifically with same-gender (female) math faculty impacts persistence of undergraduate women majoring in mathematics. - Methodology - The quantitative study took place at a large public institution located in Northern California. The population was composed of currently enrolled undergraduate women who were currently or formerly declared as math majors. The research was conducted using anonymous, online questionnaires that included closed and open-ended questions, as well as demographic questions. Likert scale questions were grouped into sections designed to measure the respondent’s attitudes toward out-of-class-contact with math instructors of each gender and those attitudes’ possible influence on the respondent within the context of the following dimensions: sense of belonging; confidence and self-perception; and degree aspirations and career goals. The data were gathered over a five-week period and analyzed primarily using descriptive statistics, as well as some inferential statistics (t-tests) and binomial experiments. - Conclusions Reached - The results of this study suggest a positive association between out-of-class contact with math instructors of any gender and persistence of women in math. Women who were still pursuing mathematics majors at the time of the survey were significantly more likely than random chance to have interacted with math instructors of any gender outside of class (p < 0.05). Additionally, when comparing respondents still in math to respondents who left math, respondents still in math were more likely to have interacted more regularly with math faculty outside the classroom. Among women still pursuing math majors, there did not seem to be a connection between persistence and out-of-class contact with same-gender (female) math faculty specifically. However, women no longer majoring in math were significantly less likely to have interacted with a female math instructor outside out class (p < 0.05), despite being equally likely to have taken a math class taught by a female math instructor. This suggests that lack of out-of-class contact with female math instructors may be related to attrition of women undergraduates in math. Beyond quantity of out-of-class contact with math instructors, this study also collected data on quality of out-of-class contact. The results of this study indicate that undergraduate women tend to experience a greater sense of belonging, as well as an increased level of confidence and self-perception, as a result of interacting with math instructors of any gender outside of class. For female students who persist in math, this effect was largest when they interacted with same-gender (female) math instructors. When looking at degree aspirations and career goals, women who persisted in math reported that talking with math instructors outside the classroom had an overall neutral effect.