Laura Parson

Date of Award

January 2016

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Teaching & Learning

First Advisor

C. C. Ozaki


A persistent disadvantage for females is systemically embedded in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) education in postsecondary institutions. As a result, undergraduate women majoring in STEM fields face a uniquely difficult path; yet, for the most part, recommendations made and supported in the literature have focused on recruitment of women to STEM fields or on ways to make women more successful and comfortable in their STEM major. These recommendations have so far proved to be insufficient to remedy a gender gap and serve to replicate the existing male hierarchy. In order to truly make the STEM classroom one in which women are welcome and comfortable and to challenge the existing social and scientific systems, it is necessary to explore and understand the social and political implications embedded within teaching and learning choices. This institutional ethnography addresses that gap. The purpose of this study was to uncover and describe the institutional practices of STEM education at a Midwest research university (MRU) from the standpoint of female undergraduate students. Using the framework of feminist standpoint theory, this study explored the everyday “work” of female undergraduate STEM students to provide a unique perspective on the STEM education teaching and learning environment. Data collection began with in-depth interviews with female undergraduate math and physics students. As the institutional processes shaping undergraduate participant experiences were identified, subsequent data collection included classroom observations, additional interviews with students and faculty, and analysis of the texts that mediate these processes (e.g., syllabi and student handbooks). Data analysis followed Carspecken’s process of ethnographic data analysis that began with low-level coding, followed by high-level coding, and concluded by pulling codes together through the creation of themes. Analysis of data led to three key findings. First, undergraduate participants reported being challenged by difficult and intimidating aspects of the teaching and learning environment. Second, undergraduate participants reported challenges meeting some of the characteristics of successful math and physics students (e.g., taking risks, asking questions, putting school first) and preferred a collectivistic environment. Third, participants described challenges from conflicting STEM academic expectations and institutional policies, which made it harder for them to meet STEM expectations. Findings indicate that efforts to reduce the “chilly” climate have been unsuccessful, largely because discourses that motivate the chilly climate have not changed. Those discourses are evidence of a masculine STEM institution, which also creates a male ideal that female students are expected to meet, further exacerbating their discomfort in the STEM environment. The masculinized nature of a STEM institution is reinforced by neoliberal policies that emphasize the importance of meeting gendered ideal STEM student characteristics. The result is that while women persist, they face stress, anxiety, and discomfort. Recommendations to improve the chilly climate include: revising the STEM institution from one that is masculine to one that is inclusive of women; and, to create a STEM educational environment that supports, validates, and gives women an equal voice.