The STEM gender gap—the historic underrepresentation of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics studies and jobs—remains wide, despite years of lip service from higher education about closing the gap, and 50 years after passage of the Title IX law supporting gender fairness in education. This gender disparity has meant lower percentages of women in STEM academics and research—a personal loss for countless women who might have found success in those fields, as well as a loss to the fields that never benefited from the talents of a major portion of the population.

But with so many of the highest-paying and most sought-after jobs in recent decades being created in technology and science, these barriers to women have also contributed to wage and wealth inequality. Several private funders do prioritize STEM education, including gender and diversity, of course. In fact, we’ve been tracking this area for some time—a portion of this philanthropy, for example, comes from STEM and technology companies, such as Salesforce or IT firm Cognizant, that benefit from a larger, better-educated workforce. (For more on STEM equity, see our recent piece about challenges facing fundraisers in STEM education.)

This is some of the context surrounding a $55 million gift for STEM education to Barnard College—by far, the biggest single gift in the school’s history. (The highly ranked women-only college is technically one of the four colleges of Columbia University, in New York City.) The gift came from Diana T. Vagelos, herself a Barnard alum, and husband, P. Roy Vagelos, an alum of Columbia’s medical school and a former president, CEO and chairman of pharma giant Merck & Co.

The Vageloses have made substantial gifts in education before. In fact, following a $250 million gift to Columbia’s medical school in 2017, the university renamed it the Columbia University Roy and Diana Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons. Other Vagelos giving included an earlier $50 million to the medical school, and $15 million to University of Pennsylvania, Mr. Vagelos’ undergrad alma mater.

Barnard will use the new money to fund the renovation and dramatic expansion of its main science building and facilities. “Barnard has been known for arts and humanities, but we’ve had an equally strong story for decades in the sciences and STEM fields,” said Lisa Yeh, vice president of development and alumnae for the college. For example, 34% of Barnard’s class of 2021 were STEM majors, compared with 26% nationally. And 36% of the class were women of color, compared to 23% nationally.

Barnard’s success in STEM is based in part on the college’s programs to foster studies in STEM fields among its students, and to retain these women in STEM majors through graduation and into professional life. Critical to the effort is the fact that 60% of Barnard’s STEM faculty are women. “One thing we do for all students is to debunk stereotypes around women, which is particularly important for STEM,” she said. “A lot of science programs have a ‘weed-out’ mentality. We have more of a ‘weed-in’ mentality. If a student needs support in some area, we provide it.”

But efforts to boost the success of women in STEM need to happen throughout the country. Even though Barnard is a women-only school, most of its successful programming could be easily replicated in any college or university, including co-ed schools, said Yeh, adding that the college is developing a manual and symposia to help other institutions implement programs that encourage women’s interest and success in STEM subjects. Barnard also conducts outreach to K-12 teachers in the New York City community to encourage interest and confidence in STEM among girls, well before college.

“Barnard has been a prolific place for producing women in the sciences, and women have made great contributions to science,” said Roy Vagelos, citing in particular the need to advance health solutions (remember, Roy is a physician and veteran pharmaceutical industry executive) but also to make progress in energy that could ease the climate emergency. “We are in what amounts to a war to solve the climate crisis, and to not have the talents of women working on these issues would be crazy.”

“It really was the right moment in time for us to be thinking about a grant to support women in science,” said Diana Vagelos, noting that Sian Leah Beilock, who became president of Barnard in 2017, is a scientist herself. “She has set priorities and created a sense of urgency. We felt that having these cutting-edge facilities will help them accomplish all of this and we didn’t want Barnard to have to wait any longer.”

Of course, higher education is only part of the women-in-STEM story. Women arrive at college with 12 years of experience in primary and secondary school, and it’s during those years that they may form an interest—or an aversion—to STEM subjects. According to the American Association of University Women (AAUW), gender bias starts when kids are young, even though research shows no inherent differences in ability for STEM subjects between men and women—and yes, it’s ridiculous that this point even has to be made in the year 2022.

Included in Barnard’s efforts to advance women in STEM is the goal of increasing racial and ethnic diversity in these areas of study. If women generally are underrepresented in STEM, the gap is even larger for girls and women of color, according to AAUW.

In an article we ran late last year, co-authors Lorelle Espinosa of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, which funds scientific research, and Tashera Gale of Higher Ed Insight, a research consultancy specializing in STEM education and workforce development, cited CANDID data showing that only a small number funders prioritize diversity and equity in STEM education, and that a small number of universities receive the bulk of private and public funding for these causes.

The Vagelos’ gift to Barnard is timely and important. But philanthropy as a sector should keep in mind that women across the country need support in STEM—not just those at top universities.