Taking a stand in STEM: How women contribute to the sciences

Buy this photo

By Akshay Seth, Managing Arts Editor
Published October 26, 2014

Nothing about the sciences is easy. None of the professors looks like Doc Brown. Not many more resemble Albert Einstein, or for that matter any other frizzy-haired stereotype in popular media. And not much about scientific work comes “naturally” — any assertion that students must be born with a natural inclination toward it is untrue. Science is a painful slog, mired in often-unrelenting calculation, stuck in a perpetual cycle of trial and error, so that its very nature — a search for an exact, quantifiable truth — demands effort. Science, in the purest sense of the word, is a meritocracy.

Then why is it that in the vast majority of science and technology courses offered at the University, most students are male? It’s a question thrown around a lot in department offices not just in Ann Arbor, but across the nation, where even though women have earned nearly 10 million more college degrees than men in the past 30 years, they continue to lag behind in STEM-related (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields. It’s also a question which has larger implications about the state of feminism on university campuses in the age of social media and transparency. One explanation cites STEM’s stagnant reputation.

“Unfortunately, science has become one of those things where the larger population seems to think that you have to be born to succeed,” said Tim McKay, the director of the LSA Honors Program and former associate chair of the University’s physics department. “That there’s some magical quality within the people pursuing it letting them do well.”

According to research performed by the National Science Foundation, of the total number of undergraduates working toward a bachelor’s degree in physics in the United States, less than 20 percent are women. That statistic, which showed strong signs of growth in the late 1990s and early 2000s, has consistently fallen over the last decade. From 1990 to 2002, the percentage of women awarded bachelor degrees went from 17.4 percent to 22.9 in physics. In the twelve years after, the number has tapered off and fallen to 19.7. The result is acutely mirrored in the University’s own physics department, where growth has stalled, the number of female physics graduates fluctuating toward the low teens despite the department usually awarding around 50 degrees in total.

Women in STEM: The Statement Magazine

Cinda-Sue Davis, director of Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) and a former biochemistry research scientist at the University, believes that changes have to be made in the way schools introduce engineering to prospective students.

“Researchers who study how individuals make career choices find that individuals generally ask themselves two questions: ‘Can I do it? That is, am I capable of doing the work?’” she said. “High school girls in this country are more prepared than ever before to enter STEM careers. More girls in this country take the AP calculus exam than boys. This has not always been true but is now.”

“The second question is, ‘do I want to do it?’ This is more complicated as issues of gender, race, socioeconomic class, first gen. college status and many other factors are involved,” Davis continued. “We don’t do a very good job at illustrating the excitement and rewards of careers in STEM. And we don’t show students how these careers help people which is often important to girls and women.”

Part of the problem, McKay states, is the department’s struggle to attract any students willing to commit to a career in physics. As listed by the American Physical Society, when examining 1,000 University of Michigan students, fewer than 10 are physics majors. Of those 10, maybe two are women, and the statistics are even more lackluster when considering the percentage of underrepresented minorities studying in the department. Nationally, 8.6 percent of the people committing to physics degrees are minorities while at Michigan, it’s half that number.

According to reports by the registrar, even though the University has seen an average of 78 Native American undergraduates between 2010 and 2014 (they make up 0.21 percent of the student body), not a single one has received a bachelor’s, master’s, or Ph.D. in physics. The numbers are scarier when considering Black students. An average of 1777 (approximately five percent of the student body) were enrolled in the University between 2010 and 2012, but in that time, only two left with a bachelor’s in physics.

A proposed solution asks institutions of higher learning to consider mandating certain introductory science courses, so more students have a chance to at least experience what the syllabus may have to offer before embarking on a different path.

“I really don’t think that would be the best answer,” McKay said. “Making this change would be predicated on the idea that the problem is they’re not taking that class, and if we could just get them to take that class, then everything would be fine.”

“I think the choice people make in choosing the things they do depends more on what they’re attracted to, not what they are driven away from,” he continued.

One fact worth keeping in mind, though, is that the physics department is not representative of all STEM fields. When considering the social sciences or biology, the percentage of minorities and women are higher, but still not equivalent to white male representation.

Getting an earlier start

The physics department currently has a slew of outreach programs dedicated to sparking that attraction, many created and run by the Society of Physics Students and the Society of Women in Physics (SWIP). Though the larger effort entails getting all individuals to express an interest in the subject — not specifically women or underrepresented minorities — McKay still believes the support systems provided by organizations like SWIP are integral to confronting the larger problem: marginalization.

“We need it to be completely clear to women that it’s a welcoming field,” McKay said. “And part of this is ensuring they have a community of individuals like them that they can draw on and rely on.”

In their collective push, the physics department participates in the yearly Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics, where women from different institutions can find a network of young scientists with similar experiences.

The disparity in numbers is certainly not limited to physics, but multiple accounts have clarified why one of the reasons it persists in related fields is a lack of focus in cultivating interest at a younger age. In an article for The New York Times article headlined “Why Are There Still So Few Women in Science,” Creative Writing Prof. Eileen Pollack describes her own struggles as one of the first two women ever to graduate with a physics degree from Yale in 1978.

“I attended a rural public school whose few accelerated courses in physics and calculus I wasn’t allowed to take because, as my principal put it, ‘girls never go on in science and math,’” she writes. “When I arrived at Yale, I was woefully unprepared. The boys in my introductory physics class, who had taken far more rigorous math and science classes in high school, yawned as our professor sped through the material, while I grew panicked at how little I understood.”

What’s telling about Pollack’s case is she knew she wanted to pursue science as a career before ever entering college, so despite the pressures confronting her in high school, she taught herself calculus from a book, independently studying advanced topics her classmates did not have exposure to. At those initial stages, the most significant blowback Pollack faced came in the form of teachers, educators who failed to correctly cultivate her passion: because they didn’t know how.

According to Mel Hochster, chair of the University’s mathematics department, a crucial step in addressing the overarching issue requires the ability to identify and inspire more individuals like Pollack at an early age, so that their interests can be fostered.

“Quite plainly, we have to invest in making sure K-12 teachers aren’t unconsciously demotivating these young women,” he said. “And that push has to be united, directed at those who are most underrepresented: women and minorities.”

In order to be effective, this requires funding — something the University provides in the case of organizations like SWIP, but has no official programs established to address school teachers.

A study — funded by the National Center for Education Statistics — implies part of the explanation may be linked to how most physics and engineering teachers at the elementary to high school level usually don’t have college degrees in the areas they teach. While STEM degree holders earn significantly more in the private sector, there are still those who turn to teaching. In the case of physics teachers, one can expect less than half to have graduated with coursework related to the subjects they tackle in class.

The numbers dwindle the further back you go, meaning a middle school teacher responsible with handling a math curriculum is less likely to have a degree in the subject than someone teaching it in high school. This is particularly problematic when considering the numerous reports by education researchers that declare pre-high-school education to be integral in setting students on a clear path to graduation.

STEM at the ‘U’

Grappling with this issue presents a multilayered problem. Though the Obama administration has called for graduating an additional 100,000 STEM-trained teachers over the next decade, the chances of it coming to fruition are slim, simply because little is being done by universities to meet it. Most education departments, including Michigan’s School of Education, provide little to no incentive for their students to collect science credits before graduation, creating a smaller selection of educators qualified to teach the subjects, and thereby less able to understand how to approach someone like Pollack.

Few students pursue physics or mathematics teaching majors within the School of Education. Both demand three semesters of calculus and even more class hours taking advanced STEM-centric courses, but the irony is in realizing that the state of Michigan only requires student to have completed a teaching minor and related certification test in their field of specialization when applying for teaching certification. This means that a graduate with 20 credit hours in STEM (2.0 GPA) is given as much of a right to teach math as another graduate with 38.

The College of Engineering, 24 percent of whose incoming undergraduate class consists of women, has several plans in place to address the larger issue, but again, most are directed at the pre-college student population, not the teachers leading the classroom. Like the physics department, the College funds student organizations such as the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) that put on multiple events intended to inspire female engineers. What’s unique about the Engineering programs, though, is a concerted effort to target schools with underprivileged student bodies.

“I think the ultimate aim is to show young students how directly engineering can impact their surroundings,” said David Munson, dean of the College of Engineering. “I think when we get that message out — that we’re not chained to a desk or in front of a computer — it has to be attractive to everyone, including women and underrepresented minorities.”

Yet, an often-cited reason for the slow climb is a sharp disparity in the number of female faculty members employed by these departments, not a lack of drive to reach prospective students. Research done by the US Air Force concluded undergraduate females with a larger proportion of female STEM teachers are more likely to declare STEM majors. Of the 157 tenured and tenure-track professors listed in the Electrical Engineering and Computer Science faculty page, less than 14 percent are female.

“It’s true we need more women on our faculty, we also need more minorities, and really there are not enough in the pipeline in terms of enough graduating with Ph.D.s in engineering, which makes it challenging for us to build,” Munson said. “We can’t tell departments who to hire, but we do approve the pool from which they choose, which lets us ensure it’s not just a list of Caucasian males.”

The dwindling numbers

Abigail Stewart, a psychology and women’s studies professor, currently serves as the founding director of U-M ADVANCE — a University program designed to improve campus environments for faculty members, particularly women and minorities. According to her, recruitment is only half the battle.

“ADVANCE, over the past 12 years has coordinated with many faculty departments, including physics and engineering, when it comes to hiring a diverse field of candidates,” she said. “But part of it is also making sure that, after we hire them, they aren’t being discounted.”

“In order to ensure that doesn’t happen,” Stewart said. “We conduct periodical climate studies, going to different departments and evaluating whether or not there’s a healthy work environment in place. Because a lot of the times, for graduate faculty and postdocs, this is their world.”

“They’re not all over campus doing all these different things,” she continued. “They’re in one space most of the time, and so if that one space is confining or demoralizing, it can be extremely detrimental.”

In the meantime, the imbalance continues to create work and classroom atmospheres that may not be outwardly hostile, but are tilted in favor of the dominant majority. Hochster described multiple studies carried out over the last decade which highlight obvious examples of engendered sexism appearing in everyday contexts.

One of those studies, also cited in Pollack’s article, pointed to work done by Yale researchers who quantifiably concluded that women in STEM fields with the same qualification as their male counterparts are less likely to be offered the same job. And if they did get the job, they would — on average — collect $4,000 less in annual pay.

This creates a cyclic nature of depreciation in the classroom that Davis, as the director for WISE, feels needs to be combated while tangible efforts are made to make classrooms more representative of the population.

“A critical mass of any group within a larger setting is important in terms of climate, so small numbers of women in a classroom can lead to a feeling of marginalization,” Davis said. “As the numbers increase there is a qualitative difference in terms of comfort levels and contributions.”

Carrie Schoeneberger, an Engineering senior and SWE’s external vice president, described her experience interning at a nuclear power plant over the summer.

“I was put into a systems engineering group and almost everyone was male, but I feel like I was able to adapt to it,” she said. “No one was openly being discouraging or anything but you pick up on little things — like people (censoring) jokes so they don’t ‘offend the woman.’ ”

Engineering senior Lauren Reeves, president of Michigan’s chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE), added that the biased treatment becomes more visible when faced by women of color.

“A lot of times in my classes if we’re breaking into groups, I’ll notice that it’s usually just other people of color who approach me to work with them,” she said. “Which furthers the sort of negative, unwelcoming attitude a lot of people don’t even have to think about.”

“And because there are so few of us, the problem feels even more magnified,” Reeves said.

Through NSBE, Reeves and other members try to create a close-knit family that can offer new students the outlets they may need to express concerns and seek guidance. Though with an ever-diminishing body of Black student engineers, the situation presents a catch-22.

“Our membership depends completely on how many Black students are accepted by the College of Engineering,” Reeves said. “So the smaller that number is, the harder it is for us to create a strong community for the people who are here.”

A ticking clock

So why are we talking about this now?

According to McKay and Munson, many of these issues have been brewing behind the scenes for decades. Though departments across the country have been trying to address the daunting task for years, recently, the discussion has been pulled to the forefront in a highly transparent, social-media-centric world.

“What’s encouraging, though, are the most recent results of the check-ins we do every five years across campus to gauge whether or not we’re addressing the problems,” Stewart said. “In the first one we did, from 2001 to 2006, we got a pretty regular spread, but from 2006 to 2012, there’s been this huge, positive upswing in dialogues about these topics.”

“Part of that is transparency,” Stewart added. “Though I’m convinced more has to do with just a general willingness to hit these problems head-on, which is inspiring.”

Still, concrete explanations for seemingly random dips in representation — like the one experienced across most STEM fields over the last decade — are few and far between. One possible answer has to do with the economy.

Curiously, the slowdown of women’s representation in the STEM workforce early in the 21st century coincides with upticks in national employment figures. When those employment percentages fell in 2008, after the housing and credit meltdown, women turned back to science coursework.

Mapped in yearly demographic reports by the National Science Foundation, strong upward trends in the representation of women in STEM occupations between 1997 and 2003 were followed by years of a slow, plateauing decline. But after 2007, there was an acceleration, likely due to a larger portion of female undergraduates seeking degrees that offered more job security in the midst of a tenuous economic crisis. Even so, the progression is more dire when limiting our view to computer science, where — unlike any other subsection of STEM — representation has fallen since the early 1990s, showing no signs of slowing the decline after 2007.

“I think this holds true for a lot of minorities going after the sciences,” Munson said. “The job security these majors offer has always been a great pull, so the economy is definitely a factor, but we hope the trend continues.”

“It’s worth noting that these pressures from the economy also means they’re more anxious about whether or not they want to go after those careers — go after those careers as women,” Stewart said. “ ‘Is this really something I want to devote the rest of my life to?’ ‘Will I be viewed differently in society, as less of a woman, if I do?’ ”

The explanations for why representation slowed when the economy soared are more difficult to come by, but can provide insight into avoiding similar dips in the future. Some lines of reasoning cite societal pressures on females to move away from bread-winner roles, especially at times when the traditionally male-dominated economy isn’t sputtering.

It’s a trend reflective of post-WWII days — only when there was a lack of men available to fill requisite manufacturing positions were women given the leeway to do so. After the end of the war, when former soldiers returned to the workforce, the cycle of sexism persisted: Rather than being allowed to retain higher-paying factory jobs, most women who had been performing satisfactorily for the past four years were laid off to make room for men. Nonetheless, an unprecedented number, usually outside the white middle class, continued working, albeit often constrained “traditional” forms of service, such as secretarial work and nursing.

Mechanical Engineering Prof. Krishna Garikipati, SWE’s faculty advisor, described his experiences working with the organization.

“I grew up watching so many women, all around me, be better than me in the classroom,” he said. “So it surprises me every time I see them in that setting talk about experiences that are so, so different from my own, that they aren’t recognized for their abilities.”

SWE plays an integral role each year in organizing the College of Engineering’s largest career fair. Its members, including Schoeneberger, alluded to the type of bias these efforts hope to confront.

“Sometimes, the culture is that girls aren’t supposed to be in math and science, or maybe they’re looked down upon if they’re smart, and some people still want to dumb themselves down,” she said. “If your parents and teachers are behind you, if you have organizations like SWE to better inform you, then maybe we can alleviate the dichotomy.”

“There is no readymade key to solving this problem. It is so vast, far reaching,” Hochster said. “We don’t talk about it enough — the first step has to be making people aware that we’ve been raised in an environment which puts women in these roles, these gender schemas.”

The clock is ticking.

“Ten, 20 years from now, when white males are no longer the majority in our national population,” Munson said. “There will be an economic requirement to draw in a diverse student body. If we don’t keep up, we’ll be left in the dust. It’s really that simple.”