Student, faculty geared toward closing STEM gender gap

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Chemistry professor Dr. Usha Krishnan teaches a general chemistry class Feb. 28 in chemistry and geology. Women in STEM departments are under-represented, but Krishnan has been full-time since 2004. Photo by Deandra Gonzalez

Women represent less than 40 percent of the science and engineering workforce.

By Nicole M. Bautista

About 40 percent of jobs are filled by women in science and engineering, which makes up 60 percent of jobs in STEM fields — science, technology, engineering and math — according to a survey by the National Science Foundation. However, millennial women are working to push their way through to break barriers and change expectations for future generations.

“From the basics, STEM is mostly a male-dominated field so having to compete with men we have to work extra hard to put ourselves into the field,” mechanical engineering sophomore Natasha Upadhaya said.

The U.S. Census Bureau found only 6 percent of the mechanical engineering workforce in 2011 was female.

“Just knowing that really empowers us to want to reach into that field and be considered equal to the male dominance,” Upadhaya said.

Upadhaya grew up in Nepal, where she said it was unheard of for women to be considered in the engineering field.

“When I moved here, I realized women are allowed to have the same type of opportunities as men,” Upadhaya said. “I noticed there are not a lot of women in this field, so I used that as a fuel to kind of help myself go into STEM.”

Male stereotypes, sexism, being advised poorly and a lack of role models are key challenges that women face when attempting to enter the STEM field, said Alfred Alaniz, professor of astronomy and physics.

Alaniz helps advise this college’s ever-growing chapter of Society of Women Engineers, which has 20 active members.

SWE helps to empower women to overcome common challenges, encourage women to succeed, advance in their career goals and not be intimidated by obstacles.

“It is a little hard to be a STEM major, but it’s not impossible,” said Upadhaya, who is a member of SWE.

Crista Cerda, president of SWE, said a room full of men intimidated her when she walked into her introductory engineering class.

“I came into the door and I saw a bunch of guys and Natasha and thought, ‘Maybe I do not belong here’,” Cerda said. “You get into a lot of doubt: ‘Do I really want to do this?’”

Cerda said once she began interacting and learning with her male counterparts, she realized that “we are kind of the same and we can help each other.”

However, she did have to battle the challenges of male stereotypes and sexism.

When working in teams, many of her male classmates let her type and read presentations but were resistant in letting her be more hands-on with projects.

“I think that they are not aware of our capabilities and they are not aware that they are not letting us be more hands-on,” Cerda said.

Alaniz said, “There should not be any limits for women, it should just be based on a person’s ability.”

Being a woman should not be an issue, Cerda said.

“If you want to go to a school, you should not feel scared,” Cerda said. “You should feel empowered to improve.”

Exposing children — female or male — to STEM by at least age 10 will make it easier in the future for both genders to work together in the field, Alaniz said.

Inserting children into STEM and inspiring them with role models will help push them to reach their goals.

“I know why men and women want to do STEM stuff,” Cerda said. “Because it’s fun. Seeing more women in STEM positions will encourage future generations to pursue similar routes.”

As of 2015, there were 1,818,000 women employed in science and engineering occupations compared with 4,590,000 men in the same fields, according to the NSF survey.

The importance of encouraging the curiosity, exploration and innovation of today’s children will aid in closing the gender gap.

Those with a STEM career create a lot of items people use in everyday life.

For example, most people use technology advances such as GPS systems or surveillance cameras, which can be created by a male or a female.

Alaniz said engineers serve large groups of people by building or developing something; in that sense, it’s more empowering.

“I want to be a civil engineer with an emphasis in water resources, because all of us need water; and water — it’s such an essential resource,” Cerda said.

The gender gap is apparent even here at this college; there are currently no female engineering professors and SWE is lacking a female adviser.

Dee Dixon, mathematics, engineering and science achievement center coordinator, advises SWE members as often as she can.

Dixon is responsible for the whole MESA center, which makes it difficult for SWE members to establish a one-on-one advising relationship, Upadhaya said.

Cerda said female engineering students at this college would love to have a female engineering professor.

“They have been in the workforce, and even if they haven’t, they can relate to us more,” she said. “Having them guiding us would make it easier for us to succeed instead of us just trying to look for answers in different places and with different backgrounds.”

Overall, Alaniz thinks the direction of students interested in STEM is correct, as long as we keep funding and supporting them.

“I think it looks great,” Alaniz said. “From what I see in SAC students and what I see in conferences, I see the numbers going up compared to when I was an undergrad; it is improving.”

Men dominate most of the fields in STEM but not all. From the same NSF survey, women outnumbered men 3,412,000 to 1,471,000 in science and engineering health occupations.

Goals are obtainable. It is all about being determined and committed, Cerda said.

“Yes, it will be difficult, but if you have a passion or you want to learn about something, don’t stop because you are a woman,” Cerda said. “There are opportunities and potential in all of us, and some of us have different talents. But, if we come together and we help each other, then we can overcome challenges and improve ourselves and improve others.”

For more information or to become a member of a STEM-related club, visit the MESA Center in Room 204 of Chance Academic Center or call 210-486-0085.


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