When Leah Wolf tells people that she is majoring in chemistry, they often ask if she plans to be a high school teacher. “Literally, that is the first response, and I always get really angry,” she says. “Or, I have two brothers, and people will say, ‘Maybe your brothers can help you with that.’”
In fact, the senior from Floyds Knobs, Ind., plans to obtain a graduate degree and pursue a career in analytical or environmental chemistry—and it’s usually her brothers who ask her for help with science. But those kinds of assumptions and reactions help to explain why women have not made the same progress in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) over the past 50 years as they have in areas such as business, medicine and law.
Persistent stereotypes that boys are better than girls in math and science can affect girls’ aspirations to STEM careers, according to the American Association of University Women. In a 2010 report, Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, the AAUW found that not only do girls tend to assess their mathematical abilities as lower than boys’—even when they have similar scores—they often hold themselves to a higher standard, thinking they have to be exceptional to succeed in traditionally “male” fields.
The stereotypes continue in college, with people associating science and math fields as “male,” and arts and humanities fields as “female,” the report says. Women entering college are much less likely than men to say they intend to major in science or math, and by graduation they are outnumbered by men in nearly every STEM field—dramatically so in the fields of physics, engineering and computer science, where women earn just 20 percent of the bachelor’s degrees conferred. As a result, women held less than one-third of the science and engineering jobs in the United States in 2013, despite the fact that they made up 50 percent of the college-educated workforce as a whole, says the National Science Board.
“It’s really obvious in my physics classes that the gender gap is there. I’m one of only two female physics majors,” said Veronica Winters, a senior from Pleasureville, Ky. Likewise, Brooke Kennedy, a senior from Hardinsburg, Ky., is one of only two women in her grade who is majoring in computer science.
“At Bellarmine, in any given year, about 75 percent of the incoming freshman female STEM students major in biology and biochemistry/molecular biology,” said Dr. Akhtar Mahmood, director of the Physics Department. “Unless we are able to recruit and retain more females in the physical sciences, there will continue to be a growing shortage of females in the STEM workforce in industry and academia.”
Bellarmine is attempting to do just that with a $105,000 grant from the Henry Luce Foundation that is supporting two cohorts of female STEM majors for two years each.
Clare Boothe Luce Research Scholars must have completed their first or second year of full-time undergraduate enrollment in biochemistry, chemistry, computer science, environmental science, mathematics or physics and must commit to pursuing a graduate degree in the physical sciences immediately following graduation. The grant provides each recipient with research stipends, supplies, and expenses for two consecutive academic years and supports an intensive summer research experience.
Leah, Veronica and Brooke are the members of the first cohort, which began this past academic year. Leah is examining the level of contaminants still present at the Lees Lane Landfill, a former EPA Superfund site in southwest Louisville. Using data collected from the ATLAS Experiment in Switzerland, Veronica is looking for a new type of subatomic particle. And Brooke is learning to build and program robots as she hones in on a research topic in robotics.
All three students also receive undergraduate STEM scholarships through the National Science Foundation. But it was the Clare Boothe Luce program that cemented Leah’s and Brooke’s commitment to attend graduate school. Veronica came to Bellarmine with the goal of eventually earning a Ph.D. in physics and becoming a researcher, but “I do see it as that I am advancing women in STEM by being in the program, and I really like that,” she says.
Additionally, she said, “If it wasn’t for this program, I wasn’t going to be able to do undergraduate research as extensively. That will be a valuable asset to transfer to graduate school.”
The Clare Boothe Luce program is part of a larger plan to broaden the appeal of STEM fields to all students and to start investing intentionally in undergraduate research, said Dr. Jay Gatrell, vice provost. “I see this as a much broader cultural shift. We have a large number of first-generation students in particular, and one of the things about them is there is only so many things they think you can do. You can be a teacher, a nurse, a lawyer, an engineer or a doctor. That is why you go to college.” Careers in research are not even on the radar.
While focusing initially on women in science, Dr. Gatrell’s overarching goal is to change “the cultural expectations of all of our students—which is exactly what the liberal arts does.”
“We are going to be pushing that boundary, getting more grants. Faculty are going out to get resources not because they want to publish a paper, but because they want to teach students new stuff. They do publish, but they also want to help students learn,” he said. “That is a whole different approach toward scholarship and competitive research grants than what you’d see at a big research university: Research becomes a tool through which we teach—a means, as opposed to just an outcome.”
Dr. Mahmood, who serves as a mentor to both Veronica and Brooke, oversees their work in Bellarmine’s Hiperwall Visualization Lab and Robotics Lab, respectively. “These students are gaining valuable, marketable research skills by working on my research projects, which will enable them to develop a competitive edge so that they can be part of the next generation of female scientists,” he said.
“When a student in chemistry uses an instrument as a tool instead of just a lab device for a class,” said Dr. Joe Sinski, the chemistry professor who mentors Leah, “the instrument becomes more of a new set of eyes the student sees through. They learn to think about getting the most out of the tool and inadvertently learn many principles of science by discovering them without even setting forth to do so.”
Although roughly half of Bellarmine’s faculty members in the six fields included in the Clare Boothe Luce program are women (a 300 percent increase since the early 2000s), they don’t happen to teach in the specific areas of research being explored by the members of this first CBL cohort. The three students spoke highly of their mentors, but expressed hope that there would be female mentors in the future.
Lack of female mentors was also a recurring theme during a roundtable discussion of women faculty in math and science at Bellarmine that was organized by Bellarmine Magazine. While many professors said their own undergraduate classes often had a fairly equitable balance of male and female students, there was a stark shortage of female professors at many institutions. “That’s one thing I wish I had had—a female mentor,” said Dr. Martha Carlson Mazur, an assistant professor of environmental studies.
Perhaps a female mentor could have helped her to more quickly overcome the fear of being wrong that kept her from raising her hand until graduate school, she said. Others around the table noted that their female students are still much less likely than their male students to raise their hands, or to blurt out an answer. “I tell my students it’s OK to be wrong,” Dr. Mazur said. “It’s actually good—that’s how we learn. We have to be wrong. We absolutely have to be wrong.”
Female mentors can also serve as examples of work-life balance for female students wondering if they will be able to have a family while pursuing a STEM career, since professional women in general still take on a disproportionate percentage of caregiving. “I know a lot of the female students I have in my lab are asking, ‘How are you doing it?’” said Dr. Roberta Challener, assistant professor of biology. “Whether we want it or not, we are their mentors and role models. I’m very cognizant of trying to indicate that you can do it—you just have to think very carefully and maximize your time.”
Dr. Mary Huff, assistant dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and a biology professor, said that when she was in graduate school, a female professor pointed out gender bias that she hadn’t even recognized. “I hung out with students, and many of them were male. One male in particular was very flirtatious. I handled it and didn’t think much of it because I seemed to have done that most of my life. My female mentor pointed it out and told me it was wrong that I would have to deal with that type of behavior.
“I told her at the time that I didn’t see it much as a problem, but she was adamant that we discuss how much more difficult it was for a female in the sciences. Years later, when I finally had a career, I began to recognize how I was treated as a ‘female’ rather than a colleague. My point is that sometimes females don’t even know that they are being treated differently because they have always been treated that way. I realize now that it is important for females to recognize the difference and have since told that professor how grateful I am that she pointed it out so many years ago.”
Several professors expressed irritation that students continue to address them as “Mrs.” or “Ms.,” rather than “Dr.,” despite being corrected. One recalled an instance where a large male student confronted her in an aggressive, intimidating way while demanding that a grade be changed—something she doubted would happen to a male professor.
Dr. Anne Raymond, who was the only female in her year when she majored in math as a student at Bellarmine and who is now chair of the Mathematics Department, said she has observed some evolution in the way that female faculty are treated over her 23 years in the classroom. “When I first started out, it was hard. If you were strict and matter-of-fact as an instructor, you were labeled a ‘b.’ If you were nice, it was like, ‘Oh, she doesn’t know what she’s talking about.’ You just felt you were in a no-win situation. But I think respect for women professors has grown. There is still some fear of the content, but they are not labeling me in some certain way as a female professor.”
But if you think all stereotyping has gone the way of the slide rule, think again. Research shows that both male and female students are still much harder on female faculty when filling out course evaluations, said Dr. Kate Bulinski, associate professor in Environmental Studies. “Ratings for women are generally lower, and male professors are viewed more favorably.”
“It’s exaggerated in the sciences, but it shows up across the board,” agreed Dr. Daylene Zielinski, associate professor of mathematics. “Probably about the worst thing you can be is an unattractive, female physics instructor.”
But being an attractive woman in the sciences isn’t easy, either. In June 2015, Nobel-winning scientist Sir Tim Hunt told the World Conference of Science Journalists that three things happen when “girls” are in the lab: “You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticize them, they cry.” Hunt resigned a week later from University College of London, but not before women in science fields began a Twitter campaign called #distractinglysexy, posting pictures of themselves at work. (Example: “Open anatomy fridge that moved to new building, find it filled with mold. Just another day being #distractinglysexy”).
Another Twitter campaign caught fire in August 2015 after a photo of Isis Wenger, a platform engineer with OneLogin Engineering, was featured in a company recruiting campaign. In response to many comments wondering if she was really an engineer because she didn’t “look like one,” she wrote a blog post encouraging women who identified with her experience to tweet about it using the hashtag #ILookLikeAnEngineer. It was tweeted 50,000 times over the first seven days, according to The New York Times, and continues to have traction.
And in January, the National Science Foundation issued a statement reminding the 2,000 U.S. colleges, universities and other institutions that receive NSF funding that harassment and gender-based discrimination are Title IX violations and informing them that the agency will not hesitate to terminate funding to any institution found to be in non-compliance. “Not only is a discrimination-free environment the right setting for all people, it also fosters important learning, mentoring and research that are imperative to the advancement of science,” the statement read.
The Clare Boothe Luce program is an important step in helping to address some of these issues, the women professors said.
“I think it addresses the same things we are all hitting on, by getting females into a science lab and helping them build their confidence and their skills—giving them that inner strength to be able to further their educations,” Dr. Huff said. “If they can be linked to a female mentor, it is giving them that female mentorship that has been missing from all of our lives.”
“It should also help to create better male citizen scientists,” Dr. Zielinski added. “Just having men that think it’s normal to have a woman in the lab, who think it’s unreasonable to have her treated differently, especially poorly, could go a long way” toward eliminating discrimination or harassment.
For Brooke Kennedy, the Clare Boothe Luce Scholar majoring in computer science, the value of bringing more women into STEM fields seems obvious. “Technology is the future, and women need to be a part of the future.”
Carla Carlton | firstname.lastname@example.org