On a recent blue loop ride around from East to West campus here at Penn State, my friend and I were quietly sitting in the front of the bus when he nudged my foot and pointed to a girl sitting about three rows behind us. In a confidential voice he whispered, “That’s the only girl in my engineering class…” I, of course, was shocked to find out that his class was 98% male as the majority of my classes are split equally between male and female students. However, as a liberal arts student, I had forgotten to take the STEM classes into consideration. Does sexism play a part in discouraging women to work in STEM related fields? And if so, are women working to change this issue?
The answer is yes. Even here at Penn State, the majority of women who graduate with an engineering degree, for example, is far fewer than their male counterparts. Some female STEM college graduates even discuss how sexism was prevalent in the classrooms they were part of. Between working in groups to remarks from male classmates, women often felt shunned in many of the STEM majors.
Some of the pressure to choose non STEM-related fields even begins in high school. Dorlisa Franks, a student at Paquea Valley High School commented in a recent interview about the subject how male classmates refused to partner up with her during specific building projects because “it was like ‘no girl’s going to have to know how to do this. That’s not important for a girl. Men do this.” Luckily, it did not phase Dorlisa as she and her partner plowed ahead to get the highest grade in the class on that particular project as well as continued to major as a forensic scientist in college.
Dorlisa, however, represents the minority of female students who are not dissuaded by sexism in and out of the classroom about staying clear of STEM related jobs. According to a study conducted in 2012 by Georgetown University, only 23% of all STEM employees are female. This is in comparison with the 48% in all other fields. Due to the lack of female participating in STEM related material in high school and in college, many schools are taking action to promote engineering degrees and classes to female students. Leading the way are fellow female STEM teachers and advisors. Many high schools have developed STEM training programs specifically catered to girls. Women leading these seminars try to attract girls through interactive experiments like Mentos and Diet Coke. Colleges, such as MIT, have also developed panels that discuss how to promote STEM jobs to women and girls as well as answered questions for incoming female students about the profession.
Tech classes are also being encouraged in many high schools to help girls discover that they really do have a passion for technology (despite the common stereotype). A classmate of Dorlisa had this to say about the tech classes before they began: “I’m clumsy, I’m not that smart. If I take a tech course, it’s just going to be me and some guys.” However, during the course of the tech class, she became more interested and her confidence grew. By the end of the class, she had admitted that something had been sparked and she hoped to one day become an engineer
Hopeful that more female students will continue taking offered STEM classes, instructors and feminists continue to discuss options about how to encourage female participation in more STEM related fields. Although still faltering in numbers, more is being done today in the form of panels, classes and with teacher mentors to encourage female participation in STEM fields. By continuing to focus their efforts, the percentage of women in those fields will most likely experience a change in the coming years as it becomes more and more equal. Soon, I hope that my engineering male friend here at Penn State will have more than one girl in his engineering classes. After all, classes are more fun when there is an equal gender representation.