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Women struggle to find the right formula to succeed in science

One thing to know about Saundra McGuire is that if you are a student and enlist her help, she is available all hours of the day. Literally.

Students who go to McGuire, associate dean for LSU’s University College, for help with their studies not only get her 35 years of expertise, they get her card and a request to call her office anytime – even if it is two o’clock in the morning.  Granted, she probably will not be there at 2 a.m. but what else is voice mail for?

It is that nocturnal dedication that helped McGuire garner the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Mentoring – a program supported and administered by the National Science Foundation.

As director of the Center for Academic Success – another one of her job titles at LSU – McGuire spends a great deal of her time mentoring students from all areas of study, and all genders and races. Indeed, McGuire has authored at least five publications on mentoring minority students in science and has presented them at a variety of chemical and physics society conferences.

Her area of interest is reflective of a national trend in which minority and female students are underrepresented at the collegiate level in the disciplines of science. The reasons for this trend vary, McGuire says, but they exist and she is part of a movement to change that.

“(Women) face some of the same types of barriers as minorities, being in a field (they don’t traditionally occupy),” McGuire said. “The main thing is to reinforce that they can do it. A lot of times (a student gets discouraged) because a faculty member has said something overtly discouraging.

“I help them understand that they don’t have to make a change based on what someone else wants them to do.”

Another deciding factor for women can take place as early as middle or high school. In those years, McGuire said, girls tend to be more worried about not turning guys off and feel an interest in science may do just that. Consequently, the interest drops off and they avoid things like taking advanced level science and math classes. That can lead to problems down the road for female students once they arrive at college – whether those issues are a confusion about what major to pursue or just a general lack of self-confidence.

“I try to get as much information about the person and try to help them do a self-analysis about ‘why am I in this major?’” McGuire said. “So often, whether or not they succeed is based on if they have the confidence or not. So often we find that women think ‘maybe I can’t do this.’”

That dilemma can also extend beyond the role of being a student. In a 2000 study, among the top 50 universities in the country, only 10 percent of the tenure-track positions were held by women. Since then, there has been little improvement in those numbers, though a push is underway nationally to change this trend. Still, it is a discouraging sign to female faculty members.

“Women still get the lion’s share of service roles and are more likely to be advisors of student organizations,” McGuire said.

As the trend reverses itself, McGuire believes universities will see the benefits of the change. More women faculty leads to more diversity and a greater breadth in research and learning.

“When you have a woman looking at problems, perspectives can be considered that couldn’t be considered otherwise,” she said.

Joshua Duplechain | LSU Office of Public Affairs
Spring 2008

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