When Nobel prize winning scientist Tim Hunt made sexist comments about women scientists during a speech at the World Conference of Science Journalists in South Korea in June, it helped bring to light more than the gender gap in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math), and more than the sexism that women face in the industry. It highlighted a need for addressing the gender gap in STEM that exists in spite of a rising tide of opportunity.
The U.S. Department of Commerce estimates that STEM jobs in the United States will grow by 17 percent in the period from 2008 to 2018. And while women make up half of the workforce in the United States, only 25 percent hold jobs in the technical and computing fields.
The reason for such a low representation has been linked to the paths that are taken in school. In middle school, 74 percent of girls express interest in STEM, but when choosing a college major, just 0.4 percent of high school girls select computer science, according to Girls Who Code, a national nonprofit organization working to close the gender gap in the technology and engineering sectors.
Women with a degree in STEM are less likely than their male counterparts to work in a STEM occupation and are more likely to work in education or healthcare, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. Women were also found to hold a disproportionately low share of STEM undergraduate degrees, particularly in engineering.
A fuller explanation for why women are underrepresented in STEM may be rooted much deeper in the kinds of oppression women and girls face and in the ways in which they are overcoming the statistics.
In order to shed light on the experiences of women in STEM and the work that is being done to address the gender gap, the International Examiner spoke with women who work in the industry, are pursuing STEM education, and who are advocating on behalf of the next generation of women and girls on the path to careers in STEM.
The STEM environment for women
As minorities in a workplace dominated by white men, some women face feelings of lonliness and pressure to represent all women in their respective fields.
“The tech industry is male dominated, so you have to feel comfortable with being in the minority,” said Julie Pham, Vice President of Community Engagement and Marketing for the Washington Technology Industry Association (WTIA), about what it’s like for women working in tech industry. “While I’m in marketing, which has more women, the engineering side is majority male and there’s a ‘brogrammer’ culture that sometimes leave women feeling excluded. Also, because there aren’t that many women, there’s a lack of role models.”
The work environment can be uncomfortable for women, said Michelle Le, who graduated from UW with a B.S. in Informatics, was Vice President for Women in Informatics (Winfo) and is currently an application developer for Intel.
“Some problems I see in STEM is that it was made for men to succeed,” Le said. “Oftentimes, it’s an uncomfortable space for women because it wasn’t built to welcome women. Outreach for women has gotten a lot better but equipping women with a network will make them better equipped for the workplace.”
The experience as a woman in STEM can be a double-edged sword, according to Sarah Filman, who worked as a product manager at Microsoft for six years. On the one hand, as a minority, you can bring a unique perspective to a group, but on the other hand there is also pressure that comes from the false perception that you represent all women.
Filman is currently a product manager at Code.org, which works on K-12 computer science curriculum and tools. Filman said as a woman in technology, she has embraced being a minority with the help of some supportive teams on which she was given leadership opportunities and recognized for the diversity of thought and skills she brought.
“On the more negative side, being a woman in technology, I think the two main things I’ve experienced over the years are bouts of lone-liness and feeling pressure to represent a whole group of people rather than just representing me,” Filman said. “Both stem from being the minority in classrooms and in the workplace.”
Discouragement from STEM starts early
Women currently in STEM acknowledged a lack of opportunity and support for girls and young women when they were growing up.
Sanjana Galgalikar is the Vice President of Community Outreach for the Society of Women Engineers at the University of Washington, which works to create opportunities for youth to learn more about the STEM fields and support them in pursuing their interests. She is currently a junior studying Human Centered Design and Engineering and Informatics.
“At my high school and middle school, there weren’t very many opportunities to explore engineering,” Galgalikar said. “I tried out the robotics club for a while but didn’t contribute much and lacked the confidence to ask questions due to the club members mainly being boys who had previous experience.”
Galgalikar said she didn’t feel as isolated in the introductory computer science courses at UW, which were made up more evenly of young men and women.
“My academic and professional support network grew as I participated in organizations such as Girls Who Code and the Society of Women Engineers,” Galgalikar said. “I’m aware the gender gap will still exist in the industry when I graduate in the next couple years and get a job. But in a decade, it hopefully won’t be as big of a deal as it is now due to the current industry awareness of the issue and what all is being done to get more women into STEM.”
Nell Byler is a fifth year graduate student in the University of Washington Astronomy Department. She attended a small women’s college for her final three years of undergraduate school. Her small classes helped her speak up in class.
“UW [astronomy] has a good male-to-female ratio, which isn’t representative of other astronomy departments. It was actually a big factor in choosing a grad school.”
One thing she noticed working in the physics-astronomy building on the University of Washington Seattle campus was the posters of Noble Prize winners that line the first floor where many undergraduates take their 100 level physics classes. Only two posters had women and two posters had people of color. “I could really see that affecting undergraduate students,” Byler said.
Byler noted that creating a larger representation of women in science starts early.
“I think middle school was when I first doubted pursuing science,” Byler said. “It only takes one bad teacher to sour you from science. I was fortunate to have two parents who were scientists who encouraged me to pursue it.”
At the University of Washington Astronomy department, she is part of the Diversity Journal Club. “We talk about recent literature in diversity in STEM. It has been a very useful resource for those who have never thought about diversity in STEM.” The group has provided advisors and professors with resources and skills for helping a growing diversity of students, and has been encouraging graduates and under-graduates to participate. “It’s a path towards improving. Every institution can be improving.”
Addressing the need for more women and girls in STEM
There are a number of organizations in Washington dedicated to creating STEM opportunities for women and girls.
WTIA advocates on behalf of the tech industry in Washington state with a particular focus on addressing the shortage of technical talent and supporting efforts to increase diversity in the technology industry.
Pham said that women should consider careers in technology because women are major consumers of the services and products created by the tech industry.
“We would have better products and services if more women were involved in developing the products and services,” Pham said.
A big obstacle in addressing the gender gap is getting girls interested in STEM at a young age, Pham said, acknowledging that there are more programs and organizations dedicated to it than there were in the past, like Girls Who Code, App Camps for Girls, and Girls Without Limits. “There are lots of programs that are starting to get girls interested and trained in technology,” Pham said.
Another such organization is Winfo, which sets up tours of tech companies and provided networking opportunities to allow students to see what it’s like to work for a tech company.
“[Visiting a tech company] demystifies part of that experience,” Le said of Winfo’s tour program. “If we can imagine ourselves working there, there’s more of a chance that we will apply. Through networking events, I gained mentors and lots of advice which gave me more confidence, but that still didn’t help me overcome the imposter syndrome. That I had to get over on my own.”
Cathi Rodgveller founded IGNITE in 1999 to promote equal access to career and technical education for underrepresented populations in the Seattle School District. The nonprofit introduces girls from grades 6-12 to technology careers via panel discussions, job shadowing, mentoring and field trips throughout the school year to visit the work places of professional women in STEM.
“We encourage women to tell their real story,” Rodgveller said of the women who speak to the girls through IGNITE. “Girls shouldn’t have to do this on their own. We have to support them. Every girl deserves this kind of support so she knows what her choices and opportunities are.”
The biggest obstacle for women and girls who may be interested in STEM is that they don’t know what the careers and opportunities are prior to going to college, Rodgveller said, and that they lack the confidence to pursue those opportunities.
“It’s not cool to be smart, it’s not cool to be in comp sci, we need to build girls’ confidence!” Rodgveller said of some women who don’t pursue STEM education or careers because they don’t think they fit the qualifications for opportunities that men might apply for even if they don’t fit all the qualifications. “Once a young girl gets excited about what’s possible, she really changes her life in a way—especially girls who haven’t gotten good grades in the past—they really work hard for it,” Rodgveller said.
Galgalikar echoed the need to reach girls at a young age to instill the confidence they need to pursue their interests.
“The biggest problem contributing to the gender gap are the social factors and often false stereotypes around people in STEM that kids are exposed to from a young age,” Galgalikar said. “In this digital society, kids are bombarded with a ton of media telling them what is cool and what’s not. With the recent attention the gender gap in STEM has gotten, there are already a lot of solutions in place targeting younger girls that will help solve the problem. Stores have stopped labeling toy sections as ‘girl’ and ‘boy’ aisles to promote kids of all genders playing with the LEGO sets or building kits. There are many engineering boot camps for girls interested in STEM. Programs such Girls Who Code are targeting high school girls at the critical time before they decide their college major and university programs. If we continue and increase the educational efforts that support young girls interested in STEM, the gender gap problem should hopefully come close to being solved.”
Izumi Hansen and Travis Quezon contributed to this report. Vyla Phavong is a digital media intern with the International Examiner and is currently a student in the Running Start program at Bellevue College with a background in computer programming and information technology.