Women carve out a place in STEM at WKU

Jul 20, 2021 | News

By Laurel Deppen

Women make up just 37 percent of the students in the Ogden College of Science and Engineering, as opposed to Western Kentucky University as a whole, where 59 percent of undergraduate students are female, according to the WKU Fact Book 2018.

The statistic mirrors a global trend. According to a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization report, around 30 percent of women in higher education are pursuing degrees in science, technology, engineering and math.

As of 2017, the Ogden College was comprised of eight programs. Of these, three had considerably low female enrollment, with geography and geology at 38.3 percent, physics and astronomy at 13.5 percent, and engineering and applied sciences at 13.1 percent.

There are however, programs within the Ogden College that have a considerably higher female population than male, including biology at 61.2 percent and psychological sciences at 77.3 percent.

In the agriculture, chemistry and mathematics programs, women represent around half of the students enrolled, with 50.1 percent, 52 percent and 57.8 percent, respectively.

Shay Moore is a Gatton Academy senior interested in engineering and physics. Moore said fewer women pursue subjects like engineering, so they face more of a struggle than women pursuing careers in other STEM fields.

Moore was one of three girls in her digital circuits class, which she said had around 50 to 60 students in total. She said she was also one of two girls in her electrical engineering design class, which had between 25 and 30 students.

“It kind of makes it hard to feel like I belong in the class, you know,” Moore said. “It’s kind of alienating.”

Moore said in these classes with less female enrollment, the boys stick to themselves, leaving the girls to speak to each other because they have “to talk to somebody.”

“It’s like segregating, and it’s like really not necessary,” Moore said.

Despite this, Moore said she doesn’t feel discouraged by being one of the few women in her class.

“I want to be able to do this in spite of the issues or struggles that I might face,” Moore said. “Kind of like prove to them, yeah I’m a girl, but I’m going to be better than you at this.”

Freshman Elena Brownlee of Louisville also noticed she was one of few women in her computer science course. She said she went into the class expecting there to be few women but didn’t expect the gap to be as stark as it was.

Brownlee said she didn’t notice a difference in achievement between the genders in the course but said people often stereotype men as being better with numbers.

“If you can prove yourself, you shouldn’t face any problems, but you might have to prove yourself more if you’re a woman,” Brownlee said.

Brownlee called that fact a “little annoying” but said she viewed it as a challenge. She said she likes challenges.

Emma Sellers, a sophomore from Kingsport, Tennessee, is an electrical engineering major. She said she may be the only female electrical engineering major in her grade. Despite this, she said she hasn’t faced any discrimination or biases.

Sellers said she’s heard that in the future she may face issues with discrimination when entering the workforce and that she might have to prove herself more than her male colleagues.

Moore said she doesn’t think her gender will affect her ability to get a job, but it may bring other challenges in the workplace.

“It might make it more difficult to like move up in my position and also to like work with others in a team because like the men in engineering tend to have a tendency to either not speak to anybody or only speak to their male colleagues,” Moore said.

Sanju Gupta, an associate professor of physics at WKU, said she realized biases towards women in STEM as she began progressing in academia.

Gupta said growing up, she never realized people were biased toward women. She said her family didn’t tell her which careers she could or could not pursue based on her gender. She didn’t realize it until she reached the doctoral level of her study in physics.

“There was so much bias, especially with physics,” Gupta said. “‘Physics is for men only,’ that sort of thing.”

Gender bias is everywhere, Gupta said, but when she mentors students in research, she looks at the person rather than their gender.

“I think there are social constraints as well as the unspoken biases,” Gupta said. “Whether in terms of they still think that physics is for man or science is for man, which is in my opinion, not good.”

Gupta said she has noticed that the number of women in STEM drops as female students get further in to their discipline, meaning from undergraduate studies to the workplace. Gupta credits this to social constraint but also to women realizing they are one of the few women and getting scared.

Nahid Gani, an assistant professor of geology, said she has noticed a difference between confidence in her male and female students in her classes.

“When I ask a question, all the guys raise their hands,” Gani said. “They are so confident, and the girls are so shy, and I know that they want to tell, but they’re just, kind of — I don’t know those barriers. I don’t know what those barriers are, but I think it’s in confidence. They don’t want to be shameful or embarrassed in front of everyone.”

Gani said the solution to raising female STEM students’ confidence comes in advising. Gani said it’s important to advise students about the issues and challenges they may face in the discipline.

“If there is a female role model like a faculty member … that can actually encourage female students particularly when they go to the workforce and choose their workforce in the STEM disciplines,” Gani said.

There are similar patterns in the gender ratio of faculty in the Ogden College. According to the WKU Fact Book 2018, women make up 29 percent of the faculty, as opposed to WKU as a whole, where women make up 56 percent of the faculty.

The Ogden College programs with the fewest female faculty are physics and astronomy with 12.5 percent, engineering and applied sciences at 16.7 percent and biology at 21.4 percent.

Women represent 33.3 percent of the agriculture faculty members and 26.3 percent of the chemistry faculty. In the geography and geology faculty, 36 percent of faculty are women; in mathematics, 46.9 percent; and in psychological sciences, 52.9 percent.

Cheryl Stevens was previously the dean of the Ogden College. When she arrived to WKU in 2012, she said she realized that of the 90 tenured faculty, 14 were women, and the women didn’t know each other. Because of this, Stevens developed the WISE, or Women in Science and Engineering, group.

Stevens said the group was developed in order to give women in science and engineering the chance to discuss issues and give them the skills to persist and become successful in their careers.

“Ultimately what you want is not only successful faculty but people who can move into administrative positions — women,” Stevens said.

A WISE group was developed for students as well, Stevens said. She also noted that developing positive relationships between female faculty and female students is important. She said some women have become mentors to their students and will deliberately welcome female students into their research labs.

“It’s really good for the students because students who connect to the faculty, students who connect to their department tend to keep coming back and then helps them persist and then ultimately graduate,” Stevens said. “It’s a high impact practice.”

Stevens said the number of women in STEM could improve, but it would take a generation.

“I also think that if you can get some young women who are enthusiastic, who can build community, then they will attract other young women to be part of that,” Stevens said.

Moore, who recently searched for colleges, said that each school she looked at offered a club with intentions similar to WISE. She said this shows things are changing for women in STEM.

But, Moore said even though more women are entering STEM, there are still people of other races, gender identities and sexualities that aren’t represented in engineering. Moore said it’s difficult for her to succeed not only because she’s a woman but also because she identifies as queer.

“It works the same for women of color and like immigrants and all these different identities and if you have more and more of them, it gets more difficult to like feel like you belong and are included,” Moore said.

Brownlee said she’d eventually like to see more women pursuing STEM.

“I just hope more women realize that they can do this even if it’s dominated by men,” Brownlee said.

When Sellers walks into class, she said she realizes she’s the only girl, but it doesn’t bother her.

“I honestly don’t feel oppressed,” Sellers said. “I feel empowered.”

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