Mind the Gap! Why the STEM Gender Gap Matters

I feel bad about not posting anything in a while. I really do. Between school, work, an internship and Coronavirus, it’s been difficult to write blog posts. That said, why not check out this article I just spent months working on? I think you might find something interesting in it!

Mind the Gap! Why the STEM Gender Gap Matters

By: Sheriff of Rarden

It’s reasonable to expect a successful career ahead for Allison Whitney.

She’s a fourth-year material science and engineering student and soon-to-be graduate of The Ohio State University’s College of Engineering. She has done well in her courses, has first-hand experience in the engineering workforce and is the president of the Society of Women Engineers, one of the largest organizations on campus.

It is also safe to say, however, that she can expect some potential hardships, none of which are a fault of her own. The problems of isolation in the classroom and workforce, discontent with her line of work, a lower wage than her peers and the struggle of raising a family while maintaining a stable career are not guaranteed but are certainly common fears.

And those fears are very much real.

Why? Because, like many others, she’s a woman in a nearly universally male-dominated field. Whether it’s at The Ohio State University or in the national workforce, a woman in engineering can expect to be a minority within her respective STEM field.

“It’s really hard for us in [the Society of Women Engineers] that we have these freshmen come in as pre-aerospace engineering majors and I’m like ‘I can’t help you’,” Whitney said. “Because we don’t have other women that you can look up to or talk to or ask for advice on.”

Photo of Allison Whitney

There are issues that present themselves to female engineers at nearly every turn.

Women are not enrolling as engineering majors at nearly the same rate that men are and, if they do enroll, they’re often left feeling isolated because there are few, if any, other women in their courses. This feeling of isolation can follow them into the workplace, causing women to either advance less than their male coworkers or drop their engineering title entirely. And while having a family can be a blessing, raising a family can also take its toll on a woman’s professional life, oftentimes leading to less advancement and lower wages within her career.

An analysis of Ohio State’s College of Engineering’s 2019 annual report show that, out of the 35 majors and pre-majors within the college, women make up the majority in only one: the Architecture Major. Even then, this majority is by a meager 1%.

Women come only moderately close to enrolling at the same rate as men in engineering majors which entail working with other people, the envionment or biology; within majors that deal more strictly in mechanics and industry the gender gap is much larger.

In addition, from at least 2014 – 2019, neither female nor male enrollment into the College of Engineering has increased by any significant amount.

It can be important to note that the genders present within the data provided by Ohio State were strictly male and female. While some students may identify as something else, they were labelled as either female or male in the statistics.

Data from the United States Education Department shows that nationwide women make up about 56% of those enrolled in college. At The Ohio State University the gender demographic is cut quite cleanly down the middle, with about half of the student population being female and the other half male.

So why is it, then, that nationwide only around one in five female students are studying engineering and, at Ohio State, about one in three students in the College of Engineering are women?

The answer is complicated, and in all honesty, nobody truly knows for certain. Experts can still pinpoint some of the largest problems women in STEM face, however, and seek to potentially help reduce, if not eliminate, the issues students like Allison may face.

Within Allison Whitney’s own major of material science and engineering about one third of students are female. In a major such as welding engineering, the discrepancy becomes much more drastic with only about a ninth of the students being female. With the typical class size within Ohio’s colleges being around 20 students, this means that a female student in engineering will be lucky if she has one other student in her class that is of the same gender.

The Ohio State University is not actively trying to discourage women from getting into STEM. In fact, it’s the opposite.

Those who apply to get into Ohio State are not immediately required to designate what major they would like to get into; that is all done once the student is accepted into the university and on campus. The university receives about 50,000 applications, accepts in the ballpark of 12,000 to 15,000 applications and aims to get 7,000 to 7,400 students actually on campus for the Fall semester every year.

Not every student is accepted by the university and some of those who are accepted decide not to attend Ohio State, which explains the large discrepancy between application and enrollment rates.

David Tomasko, associate dean for undergraduate education and student services in the college of engineering and a professor in chemical and biomolecular engineering, described the gender breakdown of those enrolling into Ohio State.

Headshot of David Tomasko

“There’s applications, there are admissions and there are yields to matriculated students,” Tomasko said. “I think at the university level that, of all three of those, I think it’s roughly gender balanced.”

He went on to describe the gender breakdown within enrollment into the College of Engineering.

“Now, if you only take out the applicants and the admits and the students who show up in engineering, there is a gender imbalance,” Tomasko said. “In fact, even the applicant pool of all the students who applied to the university who only want engineering, and this is not a number that I particularly have access to so I’m guessing, but I’m going to say that number is only roughly 20 to 25% female. And that would be doing well.”

Due to various factors, such as the amount of resources and staffing available, the college of engineering is capped.

To quickly and drastically increase the number of women in engineering, the university would either have to limit the amount of male enrollment into the college or increase the available staff and resources. Because limiting male enrollment is discrimination and not a real option for the university, that leaves increases in staffing, resources and infrastructure as the only realistic option to raise the number of students that can join the college of engineering.

This is easier said than done.

“The college has been pushing on the administration to have additional resources to hire additional people to be able to increase the capacity,” Tomasko said. “At the same time, we have to work on the culture in our classrooms and in our professions so that they are actually much more welcoming and supportive of both a gender balance and from a diversity standpoint.”

Some steps have been made by the university to help make women feel more welcome in their classrooms. Allison Whitney described how courses have tried to make their content become more relatable to more women to help them feel more accepted.

“In the engineering fields, when [students] would take the pre-engineering classes and that intro to engineering course, a lot of the coding problems were based around sports,” Whitney said. “Baseball stats, football stats; sports stats which were easy to work with, but they didn’t interest women as much as men and they found that they were losing more women in engineering because just the homework that was assigned already was biased to men.”

Eventually the Society of Women Engineers was able to rewrite the problems to accommodate.

“Our advisor for SWE worked on this project to rewrite all the curriculum for engineering,” Whitney said. “Because they’re like, ‘sports stats, people like this, 80% of people in the room like this’, but 80% of the people are men.”

The Society of Women Engineers seeks to make engineering a more attractive choice for women in college and help women who are currently taking engineering courses. They stress their five core values of trust, integrity, maintaining an inclusive environment, showing mutual support and demonstrating professional excellence to each of their members.

“We have about 450 members,” Whitney said. “I’d say about 300-350 are active attending three or more events.”

SWE is a very prolific organization, having arranged 70 events during the 2019 Fall Semester with 18 of those events being sponsored by various firms including big names such as Honda, Caterpillar, Marathon and others. The events have a wide variety of focuses, from professional development, to global outreach, to being simple social gatherings.

A monthly meeting of the Society of Women Engineers

People outside of the Society of Women Engineers are welcome to come to many of these events, with six events in the 2019 Fall semester garnering over 300 participants each. One of the largest annual gatherings they host is the Engineering Career Fair at the Ohio Union in which hundreds of companies and thousands of students show up.

While the Society of Women Engineers has been successful in supporting women who have chosen to go into engineering, the problem of “imposter syndrome” has still remained relatively common, both within college courses and the workforce. Imposter syndrome is the feeling that, despite being just as qualified as those around them, a person still thinks of themselves as being lower and is more likely to not speak up as much or simply quit out right.

“You don’t want people to find out that you’re fake,” Whitney said. “You feel like you don’t belong there and you don’t want people to find out.”

This feeling of not belonging or not feeling qualified can have ramifications later on down the line within the workforce.

While women will oftentimes make the same amount of money, sometimes even more than a man would make upon starting a job in their early career, the wages tend to be higher for men later on.

There are many reasons.

Aimee Ulstad described in-detail the ins-and-outs of a career in engineering and some of the unique positions women in the field find themselves in.

Headshot of Aimee Ulstad

She has had 30 years of first-hand experience in the engineering workforce and is currently an advisor to the Society of Women Engineers as well as a professor, teaching both engineering economics and production planning and facility layout. By the time she left her 27-year career at Budweiser, she was the chief resident engineer for eight years.

She said that, in her 27 years of working at Budweiser as an engineer, there were only about six years that she had another female coworker in a direct engineering role. That’s not to say there weren’t other women working engineering-type jobs at Budweiser or other firms for that matter, though.

It’s just to say that women will oftentimes get a job in engineering but eventually assume a different, oftentimes lower-paying role later on because they feel out of place in a direct engineering role. They would rather assume a role that has them working with people rather than working with numbers and machinery.

Sometimes, women will graduate with a degree in engineering and decide to go back to college to go into an entirely different field.

“Women engineers, if they go on and go into management in a different level, they tend to drop the engineer title,” Ulstad said. “I think because it’s so atypical people don’t know how to explain themselves as engineers and so when they move into management they say ‘I’m a manager of this’ or ‘a manager of that’ or women engineers that are ‘gung-ho’ in my words and tend to get an MBA or a Masters in finance or law school, all those things, they tend to drop their engineer name.”

Imposter syndrome in the workplace can make women more hesitant to ask for raises or promotions within their career. Because they feel less qualified than their peers, they’ll feel that they need to prove themselves more than they really do in order to negotiate for higher pay or responsibilities.

“Women tend to be less assertive about going for new roles, thinking that they don’t have enough experience,” Ulstad said. “The tradition is that a woman wouldn’t apply for a job unless she met 10 out of the 10 criteria on the job posting. Men will apply when they meet half of them.”

This feeling of imposter syndrome is often not a result of anything such as sexism or discrimination from male coworkers. Imposter syndrome can happen without a hostile work environment and can affect men as well.

Sometimes this feeling of incompetence is more from a lack of experience than anything.

“Some things that I perceived in my early years to be because I was a woman was really just because I was new,” Ulstad said. “When you go to these environments it doesn’t matter what gender you are. You are a young 22-year-old, 23, 24-year-old kid that’s trying to find a community of people but you go to work in an environment that has a bunch of old folks.”

The extent of this imposter syndrome, however, does vary between the sexes within the engineering field.

Ulstad continued.

“I think it’s 70% age and it’s 30% gender,” she said. “As a young, 24-year-old guy you’re going to find something in common to discuss with a 38-year-old guy. Sports, those kinds of things. You don’t have that commonality between a 38-year-old guy and a 24-year-old girl.”

The lack of female coworkers, particularly in positions of higher power and responsibility, also contributes to female engineers struggling to find further advancement within their workplace.

“You don’t have role models,” Ulstad said. “There really aren’t women in the organization higher than you, I never had that, that actually approach you and said, ‘you need to do this.’”

Gonul Kaletunc, a professor within Food, Agricultural and Biological Engineering for over 20 years, established the Aspiration for Women’s Advancement and Retention in Engineering and Sciences, or AWARES for short, mentorship specifically to help women in their transition from college into the workforce.

Headshot of Gonul Kaletunc

This mentorship seeks to provide counseling and experience to female engineers within Ohio State. The AWARES program lasts 25 weeks, starting in early October and ending in April and pairs students who sign up for the program one-on-one with a peer counselor. This counselor is a woman who is currently working professionally in a STEM career.

“We have a curriculum we design,” Kaletunc said. “These are mostly developing the knowledge and confidence in the areas of self-skills, not the technical engineering or science skills.”

The students get broken up into smaller groups of seven to eight called learning communities and are assigned topics within the curriculum. They discuss the topics individually with their mentor one week and discuss it as a group the following week. This cycle of discussion is repeated throughout the duration of the mentorship.

Those in AWARES are taught valuable information regarding searching for jobs, interviewing skills, evaluating job offers, learning how to present themselves in the workplace, conflict resolution, diversity in the workplace and maintaining a good relationship with their boss and coworkers.

The AWARES program has been largely helpful in building the confidence not just in the students, but with the mentors as well. There are many testimonials written by both mentors and mentees which ascribe much of their success to AWARES.

“The AWARES program has had a large impact on my outlook for my future and my optimism about what’s to come,” one mentee wrote. “It is so empowering to be able to work one-on-one with a woman in industry as well as talk with women who are in the same phase of life as me.”

One of the mentors in the program wrote, “It helped me in my career reflect my positives and negatives. I often felt inadequate to speak on some of the topics as I hadn’t experienced much, but then reflecting I could find experiences that I could share.”

The relationship between the mentor and mentee oftentimes lasts long after the mentorship is over.

“I heard from many mentors and many students that when the student, six months or a year after the mentoring program ended, get a job offer, the first person they inform and they want to talk to is their mentor,” Galetunc said. “I think it is really good, very important to be able to facilitate this kind of relationship.

There is much more to a female engineer’s life than just her education and work, however. Family often takes precedent over career aspirations.

Due to cultural norms, men have historically been designated the breadwinners while women have overseen bringing up the children. In more recent years, increasing numbers of women have gone into the workforce but that hasn’t prompted much of a change in the expectation of women being the main caregivers of children.

The father, traditionally being the worker in the family, is generally afforded more time to work. This gives more opportunities to advance their career.

The mother, traditionally being the one who tends to the children, must oftentimes manage both raising the kids and maintaining a stable career. Due to being afforded less time at work, the opportunity for advancement is more limited.

“If men are expected to ‘be the breadwinners’ then they might be working all the time and traveling all the time,” Ulstad said. “That gives them the opportunity to move up in the organization because they are taking on these responsibilities where women might look at it and say, ‘I can’t do this, I have too many responsibilities at home’ and therefore they don’t get additional opportunities because they don’t get the experience of doing these other challenging things.”

The fact that family is so intertwined with career can lead to incredibly difficult decisions.

“What if I meet someone?”, asked Whitney. “What if I want to get married? What if I want to have children?”

Decisions like these don’t necessarily wait to show up once a woman has cemented herself in a career, sometimes they show up while a woman is still receiving an education.

“I have multiple friends who have gone through PhD programs,” Whitney said. “The women that I’ve met never have children and, if they do, they often drop out of their program whereas there have been multiple men that I’ve worked with that have been with people that are having children. They’re married, or seeing, or have a partner who is pregnant while they’re getting their PhD.”

With family being such an important aspect of a woman’s life, high wages are not always the most important thing a woman will look for in deciding where they will work. Rather, benefits such as maternity leave, more flexible hours and a general understanding from a company that family comes first are important factors that graduating female engineers are told to look for.

“Why the heck would you want to work somewhere where clearly you’re not valued or welcomed?” Whitney asked. “If I could work somewhere else where I’m treated better but make less money, yeah I’m going to work somewhere where I’m happier.”

The gender gap within the STEM fields is not something that can be closed with a few decisive actions. It’s certainly not an issue that can be solved within just a few years.

Universities can’t just throw more resources into their STEM majors and expect immediate success. Companies can’t be expected to quickly obtain a perfect 50-50 ratio of men to women while maintaining a high standard for quality and avoiding ethical dilemmas.

“Equality, all that means is some years you’re going to have some more men, some years you’re going to have more women,” Whitney said. “It’s a ridiculous and almost unachievable expectation to have 50-50. If we did that, we would just be wasting everyone’s time.”

The STEM gender gap was not established all at once and cannot be expected to be closed all at once. This gender gap is a sinkhole that will require concerted effort and many years of active concentration to close. Slowly but surely, changes to company policies, social expectations, societal practices, and workplace and collegiate environments will help close this gap.

For graduating female engineering students such as Allison Whitney and so many more, they will have to expect to enter a work environment similar to the college environment they just exited; an environment with very few female coworkers and the ramifications that result therefrom.

Allison Whitney and other graduating female engineers will be entering an environment similar to the one they are just graduating from, but perhaps years down the line they will be working in one that more accurately reflects the true demographics of the United States.

“If you can do it, get the education, get the training and do it,” Whitney said. “If you want to do whatever you want with your life, do it. Just don’t stop others from doing what they want to do with their lives.”

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