Stemming Out of Gender Norms
By Lauren Smith
In a rapidly changing career world, the majority of jobs on the market demand individuals with a STEM-oriented skill set.
STEM can be categorized as the academic disciplines including science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Even though there appears to be a vast array of majors and careers for those interested in the STEM industry, the majority of those who hold these positions are men.
According to the Association of American Colleges and Universities, in 2007, 79 percent of education degrees earned were by women compared to 17 percent of bachelor’s degrees in engineering. Women earned only about 20 percent of bachelor’s degrees in physics, computer science and engineering. Because women are less likely to pursue STEM careers, they are also more likely to make less than their male peers.
These statistics become even more dicey when focusing specifically on the University of Colorado Boulder. While about 50 percent of the individuals who enter into the engineering program at CU are women, only about 15 percent will graduate with an engineering degree according to Rick Robinson, an applied researcher in consumer and material culture studies in the College of Media, Communication and Information.
Ashley Leonard, an incoming freshman at CU, is an engineering major and participant in the GoldShirt Program, which provides incoming freshman with the tools and support to succeed in the College of Engineering and Applied Science. Although there are 48 students enrolled in the summer bridge hosted by the Engineering GoldShirt Program, only eight are women. This accounts for less than 17 percent of students and, according to Leonard, creates a sexist environment.
“The guys in my program like to put me down. They don’t like to listen to my ideas. I like to be strong and independent and I like to take charge. Women in the STEM field are perceived to be not as creative, but I think women have great ideas,” Leonard said.
Although women are still underrepresented in STEM, the University of Colorado Boulder and society as a whole are making strides to ensure women have the tools they need to succeed in a STEM-focused world.
Girls on Fire is an introductory computer science summer camp hosted at CU Boulder for middle schoolers. Girls in this program are introduced to skills in technology and learn of the creative power of computer science. Kari Santos, director of the Girls on Fire program, is driven to ensure the success of these young girls.
“The goal is to bring middle school girls in to let them experience making things with phones and robots so they see themselves of builders of technology and not just consumers of technology and it’s really just a chance for them to have some fun building something cool,” Santos said.
Programs like this are existential in ensuring that women and girls of all ages are introduced to STEM and understand that they hold their own in the demanding field. Through hard work, many women have been able to thrive in STEM-based academia at Boulder.
Carrie Weidner is a graduate student at CU with one year left until she earns her doctorate. Weidner is studying atoms and what happens to them when they are introduced to cold temperatures. She has overcome great adversity to get to the point she is at in her academic career.
“There have been times where, as a woman, I’ve wondered if I’m not being listened to for example by someone that I’m talking to, working with or collaborating with because I’m female,” Weidner said.
Molly May is another doctoral student in the physics department at the University of Colorado Boulder. May in currently researching nitrogen vacancy centers in nanodiamonds. May has been able to succeed in her field through determination despite being one of a few women in the physics department.
“My experience here has been very positive. The professors at CU Boulder have been very supportive of me in general,” May said. “I feel that it is very easy for me to be part of the community, which is pretty lucky.”
Interestingly enough, CU Boulder students have launched their own campaign in light of the #ilooklikeanengineer program. This social media campaign aims to teach the public that individuals in STEM careers can be feminine and to change people’s perception of who can be a scientist. May and other physics students have started to implement their own campaign called #ilooklikeaphysicist.
“I’ve been reading a lot of research lately that talks about how the more feminine you look, the less people would expect you to be a scientist, which goes back to those really fundamental things in our society that aren’t going to change until we have better role models,” May said.
Although the odds have been stacked against women in STEM, the future is bright for those who have decided to pursue science-based careers. As more and more opportunities become available for STEM-minded women, the gap between women and their male counterparts in STEM fields will continue to diminish.
“Science isn’t a man’s job, it’s a people’s job,” Weidner said. “Anyone can do science, it’ just that the guys have a few centuries legs up on us.”