When I was ten years old, a boy in my class relayed a discouraging message from his parents. “Boys are better at math and science and girls are better at writing…and history I guess.” Funny how a seemingly innocent comment stayed with me. At the time, I did not believe him, but allowed the generalization to be an excuse any time I felt frustrated. Math and science never came as easy as writing, and when faced with complicated formulas and equations, I would assure myself: “You are a writer, have no need for calculations!”
Last year, I decided to try an additional, male-dominated major, and added a Bachelor of Science degree in Industrial Design at JMU. Suddenly my class work involved making calculations in the wood shop, and scaling prototypes for presentation. While stereotypically masculine environments like the wood or metal shops can be intimidating, I never felt slighted or incapable. But I recognize this is not always the case, even across JMU’s campus.
Inspiration for this article came from a UAV systems conference held at X-Labs last week where Governor McAuliffe addressed the growing presence of drone technology and the increasing need for women in STEM programs throughout the country. He recognized a group member of mine, who is an Integrated Science and Technology major at JMU, and applauded her for “leading the future of science”.
Since then, I’ve wondered why there is such a gender disparity in the STEM fields, and there are plenty of researchers wondering why too. After reading several articles and studies, it all seems to revert to the cultural influence on young girls and women throughout their education. So I took to my female peers, many of whom are in the sciences, and asked them to describe their experiences.
Their responses were shocking, and frankly maddening.
Last year, a fellow senior and friend in the College of Integrated Science and Engineering found herself in the only all-female group for a thermodynamics lab. The female group was equally experienced and qualified to those groups with at least one male student, but faced almost daily condescension from the lab technician who did not trust them to work with the circuits and other materials. It was not uncommon to engage in verbal arguments with him about what they were doing.
Another friend and fellow senior in the College of Science and Mathematics often finds herself as one of three or four females in a class of twenty. She noted that she has “100% experienced sexism and it’s discouraging but if you like the subject you do it and it doesn’t matter.” Additionally, she noted annual women’s conferences around the country that provide both encouragement and support for the ladies of STEM.
Comments like those received from a professor in her department about women not belonging in the shop create an incredible amount of pressure for those who would feel competent otherwise. However, this senior makes the distinction that any form of sexism tends to be from older male professors, making clear that the discrimination is almost always generationally based.
While awareness of this disparity has contributed to an increase in numbers, women only make up 29% of the college and engineering workforce. According to the National Science Foundation’s Indicators of Science and Engineering in 2016, the breakdown of women in various STEM occupations are as follows:
- 35.2% – chemists
- 11.1% – physicists and astronomers
- 33.8% – environmental engineers
- 22.7% – chemical engineers
- 17.5% – civil, architectural, and sanitary engineers
- 17.1% – industrial engineers
- 10.7% – electrical or computer hardware engineers
- 7.9% – mechanical engineers
With none of these fields coming close to half, it becomes the responsibility of peers, educators, employers, and all with a hand in the STEM fields to see beyond biology, and work to cultivate talent. Change the culture, change the numbers.