A recent UW study explored current gender disparities in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields, and it concluded that an unwelcoming culture was the main deterrent to women entering these fields.

Lead author Sapna Cheryan, an associate professor in psychology, said that most studies focus on disparities in STEM fields as a whole, but this one focused on the presence of higher representation in some fields versus others. Although women are well-represented in certain STEM fields like biology, chemistry, and math, the disparity becomes more apparent in computer science, engineering, and physics. 

“What we wanted to do was really shift the focus, putting the lens on women in the fields and understanding why is it that some fields have been able to incorporate women better than others,” Cheryan said. “By doing that, I think it opens up a new avenue of solutions. Instead of changing the women, you could instead change the culture of these fields to make women feel more welcome.”

The study attributed potential differences between more and less gender-balanced fields to the presence of masculine culture in the classroom, which encompasses current stereotypes about who has ability in STEM fields, and a lack of relatable role models. Another significant factor is insufficient early exposure to engineering and physics fields. Courses in computer science, engineering, and physics are not offered as frequently at the high school level compared to biology, chemistry, and mathematics. 

Lack of prior experience can deter students, especially women, from taking weed-out classes and applying to programs that are less gender-balanced. This makes sense. If you’re thrown into a class where 50 percent of the class will fail and you’re learning the material for the first time, staying afloat seems like a Sisyphean task.

Lack of exposure to engineering fields prior to college also plays a role in potential disparities. Addressing this problem starts with creating a culture where women are encouraged to explore these fields and access mentors who can connect with them on an intellectual and experiential level.

“That’s really what I needed from a female perspective. Not necessarily a woman in a position that was doing exactly what I wanted to be doing,” said Elizabeth Nance, an assistant professor in the UW department of chemical engineering. “I just needed to know that there were people who could overcome these hurdles and take these paths, even if it wasn’t the same path as me.”

Nance agreed with the study’s sentiment that creating an inclusive culture is everyone’s task.

“As much as we as women can pull together, we also need our male colleagues and male students to be allies and involved in the conversation and, in some ways, driving the conversation so it’s a collective effort,” Nance said.

Women faculty and staff can act as role models for current and prospective female students, and having other women who understand their experience can be very validating and helpful. Nance mentioned the challenge of finding accessible role models can be a pivotal part of creating an inclusive culture for women in STEM, and she founded the mentorship group Women in Chemical Engineering to connect students with women in their field of interest and create a community.

“We’ve found it to be a really effective way to get people together and say, yes [women] make up 30 percent of the department, but when we’re all together in a room, it feels like a good number of people,” Nance said. “You can see even within that 30 percent of the department, there’s so many varying perspectives and so many unique experiences you can bring to the table just by gathering the community you have around you.”

The UW College of Engineering focuses on increasing early exposure to STEM, specifically engineering fields, through Engineering Discovery Days, which allows current students to share projects or demos from their discipline with K-12 students, so that they see the application of fundamental engineering principles and learn about specific engineering majors. In the process, students can walk away with specific experiences and awareness of a discipline that they could pursue at the collegiate level.

Being exposed to engineering and computer science at an early age would have helped me feel more confident in pursuing STEM as a woman. As a first-time coder taking an introduction to computer programming class full of experienced students, feelings of “I can’t do this problem” easily turn into “I can’t pursue this career.” I learned all the theories about growth mindset and recognizing that failing at a problem does not make me a failure in a larger sense; however, it can be easy to be deterred because I don’t have any role models in computer science to look to when I feel doubtful.

This feeling of not belonging can be described as imposter syndrome, which can manifest as feelings of anxiety or not belonging in a field. I often feel like I got into college on accident or by chance, and I fear that all of my previous successes occurred because of some combination of luck, good connections, and magic. Cheryan noted that imposter syndrome was not a factor that impacts a woman’s ability to pursue STEM fields. She recalled getting a 42 percent on her first chemical engineering exam, which was below the class average of 45 percent.

“For me, what kept me going through was having those diverse opinions to put everyone into perspective for me,” Nance said. “Yes, maybe I did do terrible on one exam or one class, but that didn’t define the entire degree program, and it didn’t define who I was in that program either.”

Changing this starts with creating an inclusive culture for women in STEM and helping them feel like they can choose any discipline within STEM. Cheryan reiterated that everyone has stakes in this conversation.

“Our role model studies that we have done in the past have shown that men can be just as good role models for women if they make themselves relatable,” Cheryan said. “This is something that people of all genders can participate in.”

Reach Wellness Editor Aleenah Ansariat opinion@dailyuw.comTwitter: @aleenah_ansari


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