Where are the STEM women?

Women Engineers
Kati McLaughlin works in Colburn Lab.


Instead of playing with dollhouses, junior Kati McLaughlin spent her younger years taking her dollhouse apart and reconstructing it.

Now Vice President of engineering sorority Alpha Omega Epsilon, the chemical engineering major is surrounded not by other girls who reminisce about reconstructing dollhouses, but boys who remember playing with trucks and Legos.

“In freshman computer science, I always joked that there were more guys named ‘Kevin’ than there were girls in the class,” McLaughlin laughed. “Which was actually true.”

Likewise, Dr. Susan Lord knows what it’s like to be one of two women in a class of 25.

“I knew women were 10 percent of electrical engineering in grad school,” Lord said. “I just didn’t know that was going to be me.”

Although women’s representation is increasing in this field, in 2011 women accounted for 2,481 of 12,545 of electrical engineering master’s degrees, according to the National Science Foundation.

Lord, professor and chair of the electrical engineering department at the University of San Diego, coauthored a research publication in 2009 entitled “Who’s persisting in engineering? A comparative analysis of female and male Asian, Black, Hispanic, Native American, and White students.”

“When I found myself teaching, I found that I was also interested in making sure more people were welcome,” Lord said of her introduction to engineering education. She said this motivated her to welcome more females into engineering.

In 2014, the University of Delaware paved the way in its ranking as the ninth best chemical engineering program in the country, according to U.S. News & World Report.

Though the university’s undergraduate body comprised over 57 percent females, the College of Engineering accommodated 21.7 percent of undergraduate women in 2013, according to the Office of Institutional Research and Effectiveness.

The Women’s Caucus at the University of Delaware 2014 Annual Report also concluded that despite some progress, “women continue to be under-represented in various leadership roles, across faculty ranks and disciplines, and within many student majors (particularly STEM fields).”

Social psychologist Jane Stout researches women’s experiences in settings they feel they don’t belong—STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) fitting in this category. In 2011, she co-published her research, “STEMing the Tide: Using Ingroup Experts to Inoculate Women’s Self-Concept in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM).”

Female leadership in STEM is especially critical, Stout said, and the under representation has its effects.

“It just suggests that women don’t belong here,” Stout said. “It suggests to women that there just aren’t many people that you can aspire to be like, not many people you can go to for advice. It’s a barrier and a hurdle to overcome that wouldn’t be there if there were equal, better representation of women.”

Illustrating this concept, McLaughlin said she looks up to the women in her field who precede her.

“If they can make it, I can make it,” she said.

The disparity between men and women in engineering is ubiquitous, most notably in a lack of women in faculty. The College of Engineering purports 14.3 percent of full time non-tenure tracked female faculty, in comparison to the university average of 53.7 percent, according to The Women’s Caucus.

“No one suggested it to me until I was almost a sophomore in college,” McLaughlin said. “I think it’s just that people don’t think of females as engineers, and so it’s not pushed as much. There’s some concept that girls aren’t as good in science, but I don’t think that’s true.”

In the College of Education, women eclipse their male classmates by a comfortable 94.1 percent of females out of about 1,000 students enrolled, according to the Office of Institutional Research and Effectiveness.These statistics reinforce the common belief women are better suited for careers in caretaking as opposed to jobs in the scientific or technological fields.

“Women in particular, they feel like they don’t belong even if they’re doing just as well as their male counterparts, so the reasons why men and women leave are different,” Lord said. “So a myth that perpetuates about women in engineering is that they don’t do very well, that they drop out at higher rates than men and our research shows that that’s not true.”

Assistant Dean in the College of Engineering Frederick Shermeyer one key factor in this is the opposition women face when entering STEM fields.

Shermeyer pointed to a study in Diverse: Issues in Higher Education, which chronicles 40 percent of women in chemistry and chemical engineering saying they were discouraged from pursuing a career in STEM at some point in their lives.

“The College of Engineering is very conscious of not only the number of women in our work force but also our students, and I think that what a school could do to attract more women is to have something there that is already attractive to women,” Shermeyer said.

Associate Dean of Engineering Pamela Cook has worked both with the university and the College of Engineering to increase representation of women in STEM fields. She said lack of female faculty in the college is a problem that needs to be remedied top-down.

“If you don’t see people like you succeeding,” Cook said. “You may start to believe you can’t either.”

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