Despite progress, women continue to face difficulties in STEM
By Kelly Chian, ‘16 and Jenny Jiao, ‘16
Walking into a typical club meeting at UAHS, you would expect to see about an equal number of male and female students sitting in the desks, participating in various activities.
However, stepping inside a Computer Science club meeting, there are only ten female faces among 55 students. Peeking inside a typical Circuitry Club meeting, not a single female can be seen.
While there has been a recent push to close the gender gap in STEM– science, technology, engineering and math –career fields the disparity between female and male students continues to be felt, in UAHS as well as the workforce.
At UAHS, some felt discouraged by the ratios and stereotypes but chose to continue to pursue their passions.
Senior Julia Pei has been interested in STEM since her childhood and recognizes the gender norms present.
“The social norm, if we look at statistics, is that men pursue STEM more. [Because of that], it can be harder for women to feel accepted in an environment of mostly men,” Pei said.
Despite this, she continues to pursue a rigorous education in STEM, and currently heads UAHS’s Science Olympiad.
Junior Brooke Scheinberg agrees that it can be difficult to feel at ease in the classroom.
“As a girl, I feel more pressure to prove myself in advanced classes– specifically math and science– than my male peers,” Scheinberg said. “On the first day of school, I’m always anxious to make a good impression to almost make up for my gender.”
Scheinberg continues on to say that she also feels she needs to work harder in STEM classes.
“This pressure is constant throughout the school year,” she said. “It seems somewhat acceptable for a boy to skim by in these classes, but I feel I risk people questioning my place if I let up.”
Senior Olivia McNeil found her calling in science in spite of some opposition. She realizes the lack of women involvement in STEM but foresees that contrast will decrease in the future.
“When I first decided that I wanted to be an engineer, there were some adults that would say that I would change my mind eventually or warn me of the small demographic of women, especially women of color, in the field,” McNeil said. “I overcame that because of the vast majority of people who supported me and said that I can do it, myself included. I have a fixed desire to have a career in the STEM field, and simply cannot imagine doing anything else with my future.”
McNeil sees the appreciation for women in science in the classrooms and job markets that encourages her and other women to continue in STEM.
“There is definitely a huge demand for women in engineering, which is something that will aid my progression within the field,” McNeil said.
Through attending science events, she saw the value in confidence instead of being shy and hesitant.
“To survive as a woman in STEM, I have to be direct and convinced towards my role in the field. While I have always been outgoing, confidence in what I am doing and where I am going is something that developed through my experiences within STEM,” McNeil said.
Likewise, while UAHS alum Natalie Lao, a senior at MIT majoring in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, was a minority in gender in many of her classes, she was never discouraged.
“I feel like the culture of inclusion at MIT makes it so that there is minimal discrimination by professors and fellow students,” Lao said. “My experiences have only encouraged me and made me more confident.”
Dr. Diane Kahle, a UAHS teacher of mathematics and computer science, believes no single factor should stop you from achieving your goals.
“When I was younger it was less likely for women to be involved in STEM but much less than now,” Kahle said. “Gender shouldn’t stop you. Instead, success in a STEM career is due to hard work, depth of knowledge, and effort.”
Kahle sees multiple opportunities available to everyone that people should work hard to take advantage of.
“UAHS encourages women in STEM, in arts, athletics, humanities and clubs,” Kahle said. “UAHS has so many opportunities for students, regardless of their gender.”
Young Women’s Summer Institute’s resident adviser and graduate student in Biomedical Engineering Brice Ola encourages women to pursue STEM earlier, especially computer science for the value of coding.
“High schools could reach out to the local university and have a female undergraduate majoring in Computer Science come give a talk along with the admissions representatives,” Ola said.
A Lagging Field
While UAHS and the United States at large has seen improvements in closing the gender gap in some STEM areas, there is one field that is lagging far behind the others in terms of gender progress: computer science.
At UAHS this year, only 33 percent of the students in AP Computer Science are female.
However, enrollment in AP Computer Science has actually increased, from a mere 10 percent in the past school year.
Dr. Kahle voices her pride for the progress shown by enrollment, and expresses continued enthusiasm for female students interested in computer science.
Senior Vilas Winstein, who is president of the UAHS Computer Science Club, has also noticed the gender gap in computer science.
“Last year, we had nine boys and only one girl participate in the American Computer Science League, and we had about 15 boys and no girls participating in PicoCTF , an online ‘capture the flag’ style hacking competition,” Winstein said.
This year, ten boys and only two girls participate in the CbusStudentHack, a local programming competition.
Winstein echoes Kahle in supporting women as they pursue computer science.
“I make an effort to include everyone who attends meetings, whether they be male or female,” Winstein said. “I do find it difficult to include more girls simply because they are a substantially smaller proportion of the club.”
Ola wants greater exposure to Computer Science for women for when they go to college.
“Social dynamic plays a big part, and the difficulty of the curriculum can be overwhelming.,” Ola said. “There’s also an issue of limited exposure; I know women who ‘discovered’ Computer Science halfway through college and switched majors because they realized they were really good. If they had figured that out in high school it would have saved them some time and money.”
In the World
Even though there is a lack of gender exclusion in education, girls pursuing STEM may face a very different dynamic when they enter into the workforce.
The Economics and Statistics Administration’s issue brief in 2011 showed that women who graduated with STEM degrees were likely to pursue different careers.
“But even when women choose STEM degrees, their typical career paths diverge substantially from their male counterparts,” the brief said. “About 40 percent (2.7 million) of men with STEM college degrees work in STEM jobs, whereas only 26 percent (0.6 million) of women with STEM degrees work in STEM jobs.”
In addition, the brief showed that women were more likely to pursue jobs in education and healthcare, fields that have been traditionally female-dominated.
“Nearly one in five STEM college educated women work in healthcare occupations, compared with about one in ten men,” the brief stated. “Likewise, approximately 14 percent of female STEM majors end up in education occupations, compared with approximately six percent of men.”
This disparity is also displayed in the workforces of the top technology companies in the United States.
“Among the top employers in Silicon Valley, including Facebook, Google, Twitter and Apple, 70 percent of the workforce is male,” Selena Larson writes, according to Readwrite.com. “In technical roles, the disparity is even greater. At Twitter, for instance, only ten percent of the technical workforce is female.”
Lao experienced this gender disparity firsthand at an internship at Google this previous summer.
“I definitely see bias and gender discrimination in the workplace today. I worked with a team of ten engineers, where [I] was the only woman,” Lao said. “Although Google was definitely a very fair and non-discriminatory workplace, there was definitely a ‘brogrammer’ culture, as it often is in Silicon Valley, which can make it difficult for women to feel welcomed into the environment.”
Rita Lobo of the New Economist explains the brogammer culture.
“The brogrammer differs from others in his profession in that he lives up to ‘The Social Network’ stereotype of what a programmer should be: full of ambition, using his skills and success as a way to boost his social cred,” Lobo writes.
In addition to the culture, Lao points out another difficulty in being a woman pursuing STEM.
“Without many good role models to look up to, it can be easy to lose your way and get discouraged,” Lao said.
McNeil, though not yet in the STEM workforce, anticipates a similar concern but approaches it as a challenge.
“While being a minority within the field can seem overwhelming at times, I have personally always considered it an encouraging circumstance that pushes me to try harder and do better in order to, in a way, set precedence and be a representative for girls and women who will be or have been in the same situation as myself,” McNeil said.
While there has been substantial progress in UAHS and the United States in the inclusion of women in STEM fields, it still remains difficult for women to penetrate the STEM workforce that is overwhelmingly dominated by men.