Being a woman in STEM

How three women majoring in STEM navigate their university experience.

Regina Koch doesn’t belong to any groups for women in STEM, but she can understand why someone would join one.

“I’ve been very lucky and blessed in my life to have had people who have authority encouraging me and building me up, and I don’t know that other women have had that their entire [lives],” said Koch, a Genetics, Cell Biology and Development major in the College of Biological Sciences (CBS). “I would never underestimate the power of having a group of independent, strong, confident, talented women to be friends and to be supporters.”

Because of the underrepresentation of women in STEM—science, technology, engineering, and math—and the potentially unsettling responses to their presence, many women feel uncomfortable entering these fields. But some find that sharing advice with other women in STEM and building community are ways in which women can continue to overcome these issues.

For Berry, the club came as part of a solution to address what she called a “leaky pipeline,” which is causing women in STEM to drop out of their graduate programs or not use their degrees if they do graduate.

According to a 2017 report by the U.S. Department of Commerce, women make up just 24 percent of the STEM workforce. But Koch, a sophomore interested in personalized medicine, said she doesn’t feel discriminated against or undervalued as a woman in CBS. She said people are sometimes surprised to discover that she’s smart, but she doesn’t know if that has to do with her gender.

“Honestly, I felt more uncomfortable as a female when I took the math classes [in the College of Science and Engineering],” Koch said, adding that those classes were predominantly made up of men. She said she was never chosen to work on problems in groups, though she doesn’t know if her insecurities from being a freshman also played a factor.

Women make up 27.4 percent of the U’s College of Science and Engineering (CSE) student body—a all-time-high figure for the school. But despite the increased visibility of women, Koch said she’s seen female friends in CSE be undervalued, with some people assuming women are not doing as well as their male counterparts. As a pre-med student, she’s also noticed other women dropping their pre-med plans while male friends remain in their programs.

Paige Aichele, a chemical engineering major, said she’s taken classes composed mostly of men and has experienced instances of classmates assuming they know more than her, such as when a male classmate explained to her how to use her own computer.

Despite the challenges that might entail going into a field that has been historically dominated by men, both Aichele and Koch believe there are things that can be done to encourage women to remain involved in STEM.

Encouraging an interest in STEM at a young age is one way to get girls involved in it, Aichele said.

But despite the increased visibility of women, Koch said she’s seen female friends in CSE be undervalued, with some people assuming women are not doing as well as their male counterparts.

Koch also said parental support is important. Koch’s parents and a teacher encouraged her to pursue her talents in math when she was younger, she said.

Now, Aichele says that faculty members at the university have helped her the most to succeed.

“Don’t let you being a woman affect your decision to do anything,” she said. She urged women to be proud of who they are and reach out to other women in their industry.

 

Building community

Megan Berry, a University of St. Thomas sophomore majoring in biology with a minor in chemistry, started the Association of Women in Science club at her school this spring semester.

Before starting the club, Berry said she and a friend asked themselves, “What do we need out of the university? What do we need out of a club?” For Berry, the club came as part of a solution to address what she called a “leaky pipeline,” which is causing women in STEM to drop out of their graduate programs or not use their degrees if they do graduate.

According to 2015 data from the U.S. Department of Commerce, of the 3.4 million college-educated female workers with a degree in STEM, only 23 percent work in a STEM-designated occupation. Berry wanted to help raise awareness about these issues and provide a community for other women in STEM.

“I’ve been able to meet so many awesome girls through it,” Berry said. “To have that community now is so much better than to have it later.”

The club is working on volunteering, whether that’s at the science museum or an all-girls school. Though the club has only had four or five meetings so far, it has already volunteered with Operation Glass Slipper, an organization that provides prom dresses to girls who may not otherwise be able to afford them. Members are also planning on volunteering with their university’s Tommie Volunteer Spring Day of Service and tutoring at an all-girls school in the fall.

“We have a whole bunch of really smart, capable, able girls that can go out and help the community,” Berry said.

According to 2015 data from the U.S. Department of Commerce, of the 3.4 million college-educated female workers with a degree in STEM, only 23 percent work in a STEM-designated occupation.

She hopes the club will eventually host panels for female faculty members to talk about overcoming challenges.

Although the club is new, its benefits have already been apparent to Berry. Several weeks ago, she was rejected for a grant that would have funded her summer research.

“I was freaking out. I was like, ‘Was it me? Was it my grades? Was it because they didn’t like me?’” Berry said. “I took it very personally.”

Around the same time, the club held a meeting that focused on “failing forward,” and the club members learned about women in STEM who had faced rejections and failures. “It was really helpful to hear how people have come back from it,” Berry said.

After sharing her own experience of rejection with the group, she was reassured that she would find something else. Berry said it was a huge weight lifted off her chest.

“It put it into perspective that, you know, you’re going to fail a lot, especially in the STEM fields, but, you know what? You’re going to be okay. You’re going to end up just fine,” Berry said.

If there are cultural or societal barriers preventing women from getting involved in areas of STEM, they need to be addressed, Koch said.

“But I don’t feel like we need to do anything to try to force more women [into STEM],” she said. “I just think the doors should absolutely be open, for both genders.”