Women in STEM programs navigate, surpass bias 'molehills'

Although underrepresented in many science and technology fields, undergraduate SU women are stopping at nothing.

When asked about the challenges for female students in science and technology fields, Sharon Alestalo is quick to mention "molehills" of disadvantages.

The program director for Syracuse University's WiSE (Women in Science and Engineering) said researcher Virginia Valian accurately described how women find it difficult to break into male-dominated fields.  

“Any single instance of bias is likely to be tiny, and someone might say, you’re making a mountain of out a molehill,” Valian said in an interview with the New York Times about her book, "Why So Slow? The Advancement of Women." Mountains, though, are made of accrued molehills, Valian pointed out in the Times piece.

Photo: Mariana Domingues
Chemical engineering junior Monika Arbaciauskaite works with her team as they prepare for the ChemE Car Competition at UMass Amherst on April 22.

“Understanding each molehill of disadvantage — as Dr. Virginia Valian would say — as well as the cumulative effects of many molehills remains critical work for all of us,” Alestalo said.

According to the women interviewed in SU's STEM programs, these molehills include experiences of gender bias, lack of encouragement to pursue a career in these fields and finding limited female role models and mentors. Women of color in STEM disciplines experience additional challenges related to race. 

Gender bias

Gender bias still very much exists, according to researchers. As mentioned in Gender Bias in Academe: An Annotated Bibliography of Important Recent Studies, many publications have explored the issue of unintentional or implicit biases against women, as well as explicit bias.

Alestalo said researching bias, bias prevention, bias intervention and building awareness about bias in all its forms is ongoing work.

“What we are learning now from the research is how deeply implicit bias is imbedded and how it affects many of our individual behaviors and systems in a variety of ways,” she said.

Rachel James, a senior majoring in information management and technology, doesn't support the common notion that techy fields are primarily for males. James said that ideology perpetuates detrimental stereotypes — like the notion that girls play with dolls and boys play with Legos.

“There’s no reason for all of that because you never know what you could be stopping someone from doing — you never know their potential,” James said.

SU's former vice president for research Gina Lee-Glauser said the university’s student organizations and programs are doing well, yet STEM women are still experiencing various biases in schools and workplaces. To her, the main challenge is “gaining respect and acceptance as equal contributors or collaborators and a sense of acceptance and belonging from majority peers and faculty without having to be a loud or outspoken person.”

In a recent academic study, researchers sought to understand what factors could possibly contribute to the greater number of women quitting in the natural or physical science fields. When asked to name their most intelligent peers, participants who were male tended to name other males, whereas women were more likely to name both male and female colleagues.

The study drew a correlation James said she was familiar with — perceived self-efficacy can affect a woman's participation in classes, the workplace and the lab.  

“Sometimes we feel like you can’t be the smartest person in the room just because you’re a woman and personally I believe that all of that is just completely ridiculous," James said. "If I’m the smartest person in the room, so be it. We work hard to get where we are and we all do what we love and that’s why we’re here.”

Encouragement early on

For some women, the love for science or technology starts at a young age and support from family members and mentors pushes them to pursue their dreams. To that effect, a 2015 New York Times article pointed out the underrepresentation of women in math or science can be partially influenced by a lack of encouragement from teachers even as early as elementary school.

A 2015 study by the National Bureau of Economic Research found teachers’ unconscious biases and a child’s experience in the classroom does, in fact, influence which math and science courses they'll decide to take in the future. The New York Times reporter emphasizes that as the computer science and engineering fields continue to boom, it’s important for teachers to not only recognize the implications of unconscious bias, but also stop it.

According to a paper by the American Society for Engineering Education, the number of women receiving an engineering bachelor’s degree increased from about 18 percent in 2009 to 20 percent in 2014. But these fields continue to be male-dominated. In 2014, only 23 percent of the College of Engineering and Computer Science at SU were female undergraduate students, while 77 percent were men.

The sense of encouragement and support to pursue a career in these fields can be different for each individual. James is thankful for the amount of support she received from her family growing up.

“I had two older brothers who were both mechanical engineers and they just did a lot of stuff with me, so I never really thought of the idea of, 'Oh, I’m a girl and I shouldn’t be doing this,' ” James said.

Mechanical Engineering senior Rianne Parker attributes her interest in engineering to her father, who served in the military.

“For me, I was always around a technical field,” Parker said. “He would come back with circuit boards and little mechanisms and I would play with them as a kid.”


Role models and mentors

For many women in STEM, having female role models and faculty that provide support is crucial in their determination to succeed. The number of full-time women professors in STEM nationally hovered at 10 percent in 2014.

In 2014, the percentage of full-time women faculty at SU varied among departments. Only 10 percent of the full-time faculty in mechanical and aerospace engineering were women, while 93 percent of the full-time faculty in psychology were women.

With the a limited number of female professors, many students turn to student-run organizations and programs for support.

“Being in these support groups makes me remember, you know, I’m not the only Afro Latina out there. I’m not the only woman out there getting a bachelor’s of science or a master’s of science," said James. "There are other people out there doing the same thing."

WiSE is one of the university’s programs focusing on supporting women faculty and students in sciences, mathematics, engineering and computer sciences. The program gives students the opportunity to network and learn from role models in their fields. Program director Alestalo said WiSE is not only about supporting the persistence and excellence of women in STEM, but also about building community.

“Because when you’re a one or a two or a three out of 30, you need to have some sense of community and you might not be able to get it from your department," Alestalo said, adding that WiSE serves 15 departments across campus.

She said the program exposes undergraduate and graduate women to other women in multiple fields with multiple perspectives.

“It really does enrich their way of thinking and how they approach their journey through academics,” Alestalo said. “It’s that sense of belonging that increases their feeling that yes, not only are they a scientist or an engineer, but they can persist and, you know, move on and excel.”

Additional challenges for women of color in STEM

Implicit and explicit biases affect women in STEM, but women of color may experience even more "molehills." A 2015 study in University of California, Hastings College of the Law found all 60 of women of color scientists interviewed said they had experienced gender bias. The study also found that Black women were likely than others to say that they had felt the need to have to prove themselves to peers.

“As a woman of color in engineering or in STEM in general you have to make sure that you’re worth is equivalent or higher to your counterparts, and that mentality going in as a freshman and even graduating as a senior is very scary," Parker said. "It’s the reality and people say, 'Well, that’s just how life is.' You have to be mentally strong enough to be able to overcome that."

Fanta Dicko, an information management and technology senior, said resources have been key to her academic success. Dicko will serve as the iSchool’s class marshall this year.

“I believe the main challenge for women of color is not having the appropriate resources," Dicko said. "This includes mentors and hearing from prominent women in the field."

WiSE Women of Color supports students and faculty and aims to provide them with those necessary resources and mentors.

In 2014, there were no women faculty of color in nine out of 10 STEM departments at Syracuse University. In the psychology department, only about four percent of full time faculty were women of color and about five percent of full time faculty in the civil and environmental engineering department were women of color.

“For STEM women of color and those with a disability, the issue of 'double jeopardy' comes into play where one is subject to limiting stereotypes and bias based on multiple identities — for example, gender and race,” Alestalo said. “WiSE has designed its programs to fulfill its mission to support persistence and excellence for women in STEM by building a strong and supportive community across the continuum from student to faculty.”


Moving forward

In 2011, the U.S. Department of Commerce reported women only occupy less than 25 percent of jobs in STEM. According to the National Girls Collaborative Project, more undergraduate women receive bachelor’s degrees in the biological sciences compared to computer sciences, engineering, physics and mathematics and statistics.

It’s no doubt women will continue to face many molehills along the way, but they are climbing over them one by one. When asked what tip they would give young girls looking to pursue STEM careers, several undergraduate women interviewed shared the same message: Never take no for an answer.

Post new comment

* Field must be completed for your comment to appear on The NewsHouse
The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.