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Closing the Gender Gap in STEM Fields

Posted Apr. 15, 2014

Although women fill close to half of all jobs in the U.S. economy, they hold less than 25 percent of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, or STEM, jobs, according to a study from the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program.

 

Some Kent students hope to increase that percentage.

 

Junior physics major Brandy Grove said her first interest in the sciences started when she was young.

“I remember my parents taking me to the Great Lakes Science Center,” Grove said. “One time they had me stand on a stool that was in a thing full of bubble soap. Then they took the hula-hoop and put me inside the bubble and I remember being fascinated by that. So I guess you could say it was the bubble.”


However, Grove said she was almost out of high school when she decided to major in physics.


Women in the Workforce

Women in STEM jobs make 33 percent more than their counterparts in other fields.

Women make up 23 percent of people working in STEM fields.

Women are 48 percent of the United States workforce.



“Until I was 16, I wanted to be a professional ballerina,” she said. “Then I suffered a back injury and I didn’t know what I was going to do.”


Grove said she attended Kent State through the post-secondary program in high school and stumbled onto a physics class.


“My heart was set on ballet, but I couldn’t do that with an injured back,” Grove said. “But I was still pretty good at math, so I decided to take a physics class because I needed a credit for school and really liked it.”


Since then, Grove has become one of the few women in the physics department and recently founded an advocacy group for women in STEM fields called Scientista, which biomedical sciences graduate student Jessica Krieger is a member of.


Krieger decided to pursue biology after three years of being a psychology major. She said a TED Talk that presented techniques in neuroscience inspired her.


“I just kind of had a spark,” Krieger said. “It was at that moment that I started to steer away from counseling and clinical psychology and moved toward the scientific end of [psychology].”

 

Attracting Young Women to STEM Fields

 

Karen Purcell, professional engineer and author of “Unlocking Your Brilliance: Smart Strategies for Women to Thrive in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math,” said young women are not getting enough exposure to STEM fields.


Purcell said while there has been a significant change from the 1950s when women were not taught math and science, there is still room for improvement and that starts with exposing young women to the possibilities in STEM fields.


“There is still not enough support for girls,” Purcell said. “I don’t think that most girls know what they can be in the STEM fields. Some women are just intimidated by the fact that the field is male-dominated.”

In Purcell’s book, she writes about her experience becoming an electrical engineer. She said her high school physics teacher launched her interest in the sciences.


“My high school physics teacher came up to me and told me that I should consider a career in engineering and I said ‘What’s that?’ ” Purcell said. “I wasn’t very aware of what engineering really was or what it could offer for me.”

 

Purcell said the interest in science and math needs to start at a young age.


“It starts with participating in science fairs and doing fun experiments in the backyard,” Purcell said. “I think finding a mentor is really important, too, or at least someone you can look up to.”


On the contrary, Grove and Krieger said the interest in science could happen at any age.

“I didn’t decide on being a scientist until later because I was so set on ballet,” Grove said. “I had the math courses because I was good at math, but it wasn’t until I took a college course at Kent that I actually considered science as a career.”


Krieger said she didn’t consider science as a career until she was almost done with her bachelor’s degree in psychology.


“The interest in science just has to be there,” Krieger said. “You don’t have to be set on it when you’re five. With biology, I was able to pick it up quickly even three years into my undergraduate work. If there’s a will, there’s a way and as long as you have that desire to learn, you can become a scientist at any age.”

 

Facing Challenges

 

Purcell, Krieger and Grove all said being a female scientist in a male-dominated field is a challenge at times.


“Sometimes I just want to be a girl,” Grove said. “I could paint my nails in the physics lounge, but I don’t think the guys would like that so much.”


Krieger said she enjoys being a part of Scientista because she feels accepted.


“Whenever I walk into a room full of science guys, it’s almost like two different worlds,” Krieger said. “But with Scientista, I can just be myself.”


Purcell said she has had to prove herself even in her professional career.


“Sometimes I will go to meet with a contractor, and they assume the male assistant with me is the engineer until I start speaking intelligently about the subject and he realizes that I am the engineer,” Purcell said.

However, Purcell said she recorded these experiences in her book and hopes to be an inspiration to young women.


“I don’t take it personally, though,” she said. “I take it in stride. It makes me want to do what I do even more and make sure young women can have the same experiences. I wish I had this book when I was young. I want it to be an inspiration or encouragement for girls that show excellence in science and math.”


Raising Awareness

 

Purcell said she hopes to see more female leaders emerge in the STEM fields and continue to close the gender gap.


“Throughout history, women have achieved tremendous accomplishments in the traditionally male-dominated STEM fields,” Purcell said. “Women worked on the Manhattan Project, contributed to our understanding of DNA, discovered radium and helped design and build the Golden Gate Bridge. Although that hurdle is less overt today, biases and restrictions still prevent women from choosing STEM career paths in large numbers.”


Cooperations by Girls Scouts, NASA and other organizations have been working with the government to increase young women’s exposure to STEM fields. At the beginning of this year, the National Center for Women & Information Technology sponsored the “Million Women Mentors” Initiative to increase confidence in young women to pursue and succeed in STEM careers.


“It’s amazing to see what a little awareness can do to launch these great initiatives and make a change,” Purcell said. “At this rate, I hope that girls find what they love to do. I love what I do, and I want that for every single other girl out there. I wouldn’t want them to miss out on an opportunity because they just didn’t know it was there.”


Krieger said she hopes that the formation of the Scientista chapter on campus will provide a support network for women in the sciences.


“Although it is getting better as far as the amount of women getting degrees in the sciences, we still need to support each other and help each other climb the ladder,” Krieger said.

 

Haley Baker is a magazine journalism major at Kent State