Among the many research and data summaries, anecdotes, and recommendations in the recent AAUW report, Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, is this little idea, described in a section on what some physics departments have done to attract and retain female physics majors:
Provide a student lounge.
Although there is also a recommendation for women-only networking events, the recommended student lounge is one that is open to all students and is a "welcoming" place where all students feel comfortable.
Does your department have a designated student lounge for undergraduate majors? If so, is it well used? Do you think it is important to have such a place for students to gather within the department?
I think such places can be very important for all students, promoting a sense of community and creating a more energetic atmosphere in classes, labs, and in the department in general. I don't know what the overall effect is on recruiting or retaining women to STEM fields in which they are underrepresented, but if the lounge atmosphere is a positive one, I can see how it would be a good thing to have.
Most of my observations of Student Lounges have been as an observer, but, speaking as a professor who at times has had an office within earshot of an undergraduate student lounge, I can attest to the following:
1. A surprising number of students will speak in a loud voice in a student lounge with the door to the corridor wide open, unaware (or not caring?) that all the professors in nearby offices can hear their conversations, which are at times of a rather non-academic nature. Maybe it is like when people talk on a cell phone and somehow lose all perspective on how loud they are, but many times I have been amazed at this phenomenon as applied to student lounge behavior. We professors are kind of interested in the fact that some students hate our colleague who is teaching SCI 320, but most of us would rather not know what our students did last weekend with their girl/boyfriend and various mood-altering substances, not all of which remained ingested. TMI.
2. Students have a lot of fun in their student lounge. There is a lot of laughing, and I have seen (and heard) the camaraderie develop during the academic year as cohorts of students progress through their major classes.
#2 is the important point. Although the thought of potentially large numbers of undergraduates congregating in a small enclosed space may be a bit terrifying for some faculty, especially those with offices nearby, clearly these social spaces are important and can greatly enhance the academic experience for many students, with obvious positive impacts on the department and university as well.
This was a small point in the overall AAUW report, but it is part of the general conclusion that academic institutions need to develop a positive climate in which women are respected for their talents, and not penalized for characteristics or actions that have nothing to do with academic performance. Such seemingly small things can help make the STEM world seem less hostile and mysterious and help women feel less isolated.
10 months ago