Although there are talented women in every field, the gender gap in many science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields is well documented.
According to the National Science Foundation, women constituted approximately 50 percent of the total U.S. population in 2014. However, NSF data found that in 2015, women made up only 14.5 percent of working engineers, 26.4 percent of mathematicians and computer scientists, and only 28.4 percent of all scientists and engineers combined.
Reasons suggested to explain the scarcity of women in STEM include discrimination and bias, lack of role models, cultural “pipeline” issues, and real or perceived concerns about balancing a STEM career with family life. In order to attract and retain more women to science, technology, engineering, and math careers, each of these must be addressed.
At PLNU, women currently chair the Departments of Biology (Dawne Page, Ph.D.), Chemistry (Sara Yu Choung, Ph.D.), Mathematical, Information, & Computer Sciences (Maria Zack, Ph.D.), and Physics & Engineering (Maria Zack, Ph.D.). Zack suggests that PLNU’s relative success in attracting, engaging, and retaining women faculty and students in these fields is not random. Rather, she feels that fostering inclusivity; implementing family friendly work policies; providing strong female role models and mentors; and creating meaningful programs encourages more PLNU students of both genders to consider and pursue STEM careers. Zack believes these strategies can help elsewhere as well.
WHY STEM FIELDS NEED WOMEN
“Why do we need women?” asked Zack. “It’s the same question as ‘Why do we need diversity?’ More voices with different perspectives yield better results — the creativity is higher; the insights are stronger. Research confirms this.”
Pam Quimby (84), a software engineer who graduated from PLNU with a double major in math and computer science, concurs. Quimby has spent time as a software developer, manager, and team lead, including time as a functional manager responsible for hiring and firing.
“I know not everyone agrees, but women tend to have a different management approach — they are often more empathetic,” Quimby said. “This may not help in conquering a technology problem directly, but I believe when we are a team, all of us are going to contribute different things because of our different experiences and backgrounds. Women contribute what only women can contribute.”
Margaret Urfer (10), a software engineer at Microsoft, agrees that companies need diverse groups to bring about the best ideas and innovations. Urfer earned her bachelor’s in computer information systems from PLNU and a master’s in computer science from UCSD. In her experience, in addition to heightening creativity and producing better ideas, diversity is key in the development and testing of technology.
“If you have a homogeneous group designing a project for a heterogeneous, mixed audience, it will not be representative,” Urfer explained. “For example, if all of your engineers are right-handed, your product might not work for a quarter of your audience. Some groups in Microsoft do machine learning such as voice recognition or handwriting recognition. They need diverse groups to train their software and to test its functionality.”
With a growing demand for talent in high-tech, engineering, and “Big Data” fields, the industries themselves need to attract bright, capable women in order to fill their positions. Drawing talent from barely over half the eligible population doesn’t make good business sense.
“We also need more women in STEM because there are a lot of really great careers in STEM,” Zack said. “There are a lot of interesting, challenging, and well-paying jobs in these fields that could serve women and their families well.”
THE PROBLEM OF BIAS
Stefanie Mooney, M.D. (08), who earned her bachelor’s in mathematics at PLNU, is a physician and assistant clinical professor in the department of supportive care medicine at City of Hope, an innovative hospital and cancer care center near Los Angeles. While Mooney has enjoyed relative gender equity in her education and workplace, she has experienced a measure of discrimination from the public.
“Going through medical school, I was lucky to not feel significantly limited by being a woman — same with postgraduate training or getting hired,” Mooney said. “I notice it the most with patients to be honest. I introduce myself as Dr. Mooney, but if they are on the phone, I will hear them say, ‘Hold on. My nurse is here.’ I think patients make an assumption like that because I am young but also because I am a woman. Once, on an airplane, they called for a doctor, and the male flight attendant didn’t believe that I was a doctor until I showed him my medical card.”
Discrimination in hiring and workplace culture is, unfortunately, also not uncommon. A well-known 2012 study helped demonstrate this. In the study, researchers gave science faculty at top research universities identical application materials for a job opening with the only difference being that some were given male names and some female. Both male and female faculty rated those with male names significantly higher. When all else was equal, appearing male made the difference.
“Why do we need women? It’s the same question as ‘Why do we need diversity?’ More voices with different perspectives yield better results — the creativity is higher; the insights are stronger.”
—MARIA ZACK, PH.D.
Once hired, research shows that in jobs more traditionally held by men, men are often judged on their potential while women are judged on past accomplishments. In order to be hired, advance, or succeed, women must prove their value more often than men.
Though gender and diversity biases are certainly not limited to STEM fields, biases tend to be more potent in less diverse settings. Addressing these insidious issues is a difficult but necessary step in encouraging more women to enter STEM careers.
Related: How one PLNU alum is striving to diversify the STEM fields by infusing the arts.
THE ISSUE OF CRITICAL MASS
Even in cases where there is no overt discrimination, people will often opt out of situations where their identifying group is significantly underrepresented. “There is this idea of critical mass,” explained Alana (Nichols) Unfried, Ph.D. (09), professor of statistics at Cal State Monterey Bay. “Once you get to 30 percent [representation], there is a sense of belonging, and other people come to join the party. In fields where the number of women is still so low, it is hard for others to come and feel like they belong.”
Unfried benefited from the bevy of female peers and faculty at PLNU when she was an undergrad. “At Point Loma, women are highly represented,” she said. “There were lots of other women in my programs. There were a couple of female math majors in my dorm. It never felt odd to me ever. I never felt out of place being a woman who likes math.”
Even beyond PLNU, Unfried’s field, statistics, is one of the STEM areas where women have the best representation. Approximately 40 percent of statistics degrees are earned by women and about the same percent of faculty poised for tenure in statistics are women, according to a 2014 article by The Washington Post.
Still, being part of a field where the “critical mass” has been achieved doesn’t mean that Unfried has never experienced the discomfort of being in the minority.
“My first eye-opening experience was at a local meetup for people interested in data science, which is a combination of statistics and computer science,” she said. “I was the only female in the 30-40 person group, and I found that I still felt out of place despite all my qualifications.”
Unfried stuck it out with the group and was eventually able to present a talk to them. “It felt good to hold my ground and show I belonged,” she said.
ROLE MODELS WHO PAVE THE WAY
Part of Unfried’s research includes how to attract women and minorities to STEM careers. “In computer science and engineering grad programs, women feel the pressure against them all along the way — males excluding them from study groups, professors trying to redirect them in case it is too hard for them. What we’ve found is that building really strong mentorship in these settings helps combat marginalization.”
Unfried herself benefited from role models and mentorship, starting at PLNU. “When I was applying to grad school, I set up a meeting with Dr. Lori Carter because I knew she had kids, and I asked her: is it really possible to get a Ph.D. and have kids?” said Unfried. “She encouraged me. I had a mentor and that made a big difference.”
Because of that experience, Unfried also sought out a female mentor in grad school. Now, as a professor and mother herself, Unfried strives to be a role model to her students.
Dawne Page, Ph.D., PLNU’s biology department chair, said, “I think it’s very important that we have a lot of female faculty — especially where it’s hard to get women into the pipeline. A lot of the solutions for chemistry, math, and physics are having more role models at earlier stages — like middle school and high school.”
PLNU computer science professor Lori Carter, Ph.D., agrees and points out that for her discipline, which is among the least gender balanced, there are no required high school courses at all. That means that many of the college students who decide to give computer science a try are drawn to it because of previous experience playing video games. Although both girls and boys play video games, the hobby is more popular among boys.
“There is a lack of knowledge and familiarity with the discipline,” Carter explained. “Writing a program to make a video game (one thing a computer scientist might do) is a lot different than playing a video game. Furthermore, computing extends way beyond gaming. It is an essential component of advances in medicine, business, science, psychology, and almost every other area of study.”
Learn More: PLNU offers a degree in information technology to help prepare women and men for the future.
STEREOTYPES AND THE PIPELINE
Like Carter and Page, Urfer feels strongly that pipeline issues are a real problem for women in STEM. “There are not enough women in tech because there aren’t enough girls learning tech,” said Urfer. “You’re starting to see things like GeekGirlCon, a two day convention designed to celebrate and encourage women and girls in tech and related fields. They have to do things like this because the culture pushes women away from STEM.”
Urfer cited gendered toys and toy rows at retail stores as just one example. Building toys, space toys, and video games have traditionally been marketed more toward boys even though these toys are often what first spark a child’s interest in engineering, science, or computers.
“My first eye opening experience was at a local meet up for people interested in data science … I was the only female in the 30-40 person group, and I found that I still felt out of place despite all my qualifications.”
— ALANA (NICHOLS) UNFRIED (09), PH.D.
Some toy makers have taken the hint and are changing the way they market their products. New STEM-focused toys are being promoted to girls, including one Urfer especially likes called “GoldieBlox.” GoldieBlox uses the tagline “More Than Just a Princess” and says its aim is to “disrupt the pink aisle.”
In addition to toys, cultural stereotypes are shaped by the images people have of STEM work itself. Many people view STEM careers as being relatively isolated, highly competitive, and requiring innate brilliance. The entertainment industry often feeds these misconceptions. The popular TV show The Big Bang Theory is a current problematic example, Urfer noted. Though inaccurate, these stereotypes push many women away from considering STEM careers.
Related: What is Disney getting wrong with its portrayal of both girls and boys?
“If you look back at the beginning of computer science, there was not a lack of females,” said Urfer. “Ada Lovelace was the first computer programmer [back in the 1800s]. Women had pretty decent representation at first, but the culture shift really hurt.”
Research from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development supports Urfer’s position. In a science assessment exam given to students in 65 countries worldwide, girls out-performed boys overall. But in the United States and certain other developed countries, the trend was reversed with boys outscoring girls. This suggests that cultural, not biological, factors are at play.
EXPOSING STUDENTS TO STEM
Companies like GoldieBlox aren’t the only ones aiming to address the pipeline issues in STEM. Giving students earlier exposure to STEM education and career opportunities is something PLNU has been involved with for some time. Since 1998, PLNU has hosted Perspectives on Science, a monthly seminar series for middle and high school science teachers. PLNU also hosts an annual Science Honors Weekend for high-achieving high school seniors. The weekend is designed to encourage students to pursue their scientific interests and gifts, and, for the last three years, more than half the attendees were female. Last year, PLNU’s computer science faculty introduced coding to elementary, middle, and high school teachers.
PLNU also launched a computational science minor, which is led by Carter. This innovative program is designed to give college students exposure to computer science.
“It started with a National Science Foundation grant,” Carter said. “We show students from other sciences how computational science can help them do their research. Most students that do the program are women — mostly biologists. Putting females into our computing classes that wouldn’t otherwise be there makes it more comfortable for the female students in computer science classes because they aren’t the only ones. The point isn’t to get students to change majors, but it does get students into these classes to see if they like it.”
The department is also offering a new 1-unit computer programming class for absolute beginners. Carter said there are about 20 students currently enrolled, including many education majors. This is another way the department hopes to contribute to the preparation of future middle and high school teachers who are able to encourage students to pursue their field.
WORK THAT INSPIRES
Page thinks that part of what draws women to her field is that it is easy for people to see how biology can improve people’s lives. Unfried sees that in statistics, too.
“My personal thought is that women like to choose careers where it is clear to them that they are bettering society and contributing,” said Unfried. “It is true in all STEM fields, but we don’t always talk about that.”
Zack feels that part of the reason the computational science minor has been so successful is because it clearly relates to the research students are interested in doing. She is looking to build on that, encouraging engineering students to view themselves as “makers who make things for the good of others.”
“ I think it’s very important that we have a lot of female faculty … A lot of the solutions for chemistry, math, and physics are having more role models at earlier stages — like middle school and high school.”
—DAWNE PAGE, PH.D.
“Some of what we are working on in computer science and engineering is showing how, for example, engineering knowledge could lead to water purification systems, and computer science could help map the human genome and cure cancer,” said Zack. “We are putting a focus on the applications of the discipline to do something good.”
Zack is also looking into partnering PLNU’s engineering and art and design students in working on “maker” projects.
“We might ask: how can computer science and art students work together on a website that is gorgeous and super functional?” Zack asked. “That kind of thinking will engage lots of students, and maybe in particular female students.”
THE FAMILY FACTOR
Everyone, male or female, who wants to build both a career and a family has to find the approach that works best for them. But for women interested in STEM careers who also desire to become mothers, the question of how they will do both often looms particularly large.
The women in Williams’ research often reported biases related to having children — that being a mother made a woman in STEM less committed or less capable somehow. Even though many men want to become fathers, they don’t often face the same kinds of assumptions from bosses, loved ones, or society. Men are rarely asked whether they plan to continue working after their children are born.
Page pointed out that in addition to motherhood, women also often bear the primary responsibility of caring for aging parents. Much research suggests that women still do more of the work at home, including “kin-keeping” activities, like remembering birthdays, and responsibilities relating to children, such as signing permission slips and packing lunches. When women consider adding a demanding career, some deem it too daunting.
But the stereotype that STEM careers can’t be combined with motherhood has proven false for Page, Unfried, Carter, and Quimby.
Page had her children while she was a postdoctoral researcher. It wasn’t always easy, but her children ended up playing an important role in her deciding to teach. It was when they were in elementary school that she saw the need for better science education and changed her focus.
Carter and Quimby defied the assumption that women in STEM can’t opt for part-time work while their children are young.
“You do have to realize that there are compromises,” Carter, who has three children, said. “You can’t be the best at everything; you have to be good enough. You have to discuss it with your spouse. You may have to both make some sacrifices.”
Quimby relates to the idea of making sacrifices, but she also wants women to know that they don’t have to be permanent.
“You can make subtle career changes when you need to,” she said. “Work was really, really important to me as a young person. But when my daughter was born, there was something more important to me … At the moment, I am commuting three hours a day, and I love my job. But I wouldn’t be doing that if my kids weren’t grown.”
Unfried has a preschooler and a baby on the way. She intentionally chose a position where she and her husband would have support. She pointed out that because of the plethora of jobs available in STEM, both men and women have a good position to negotiate for the schedule and opportunities that work best for their families. In fact, family-friendly policies have been shown to improve job satisfaction for both men and women in all sorts of industries.
“PLNU is a supportive environment for women to work in. Our promotion and tenure system is set up in a family–friendly way. We are imperfect, but we are trying to encourage people to live balanced lives.”
—MARIA ZACK, PH.D.
At PLNU, Zack has seen the university make intentional efforts to support families.
“It ties into the faith piece in an interesting way,” Zack said. “PLNU is a supportive environment for women to work in. Our promotion and tenure system is set up in a family-friendly way. We are imperfect, but we are trying to encourage people to live balanced lives.”
This is not an issue that can be solved without concerted effort. But when good faith efforts are made, so, too, can progress be made. The results of PLNU’s efforts have been encouraging.
Quimby put it well: “I am so proud of the fact that we have strong female faculty and that we have so many female students wanting to find out more about STEM.”