Opinion

Making strides for women in STEM

Both Philadelphia and Temple are becoming more gender inclusive in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

headshotThroughout my undergraduate career studying physics, I’d gotten used to that isolating, heavy feeling of being the only girl in the classroom. There’s something about the pressure of having to represent your entire gender that really puts a damper on the whole learning experience.

For some reason, many people think studying the forces that keep our world functioning as we know it doesn’t enrapture the young minds of women like it does men.

But that’s not the issue.

The lack of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics is likely due to a combination of societal pressures and a lack of opportunity – most certainly not sheer ignorance or incompetence.

Fortunately, Temple and the city of Philadelphia are making promising strides toward equal representation in STEM fields.

According to a recent study published earlier this summer by SmartAsset, a personal finance technology firm, Philadelphia ranked fifth in STEM diversity. Philly fared particularly well in gender diversity, where women comprised 37 percent of the workforce compared to the 63 percent dominated by men. The national average ratio of women to men is 26 to 74.

Temple, a research institution from which one in seven college graduates in Philadelphia holds a degree, generally surpasses even this level of representation within its student body across STEM subjects. The university struggles, however, with gender representation in more technical majors, like engineering, physics and computer science which more heavily require applied math and technology.

For example, the College of Engineering claimed only a 17.1 percent female enrollment in 2014, including both graduate and undergraduate students. It made a modest shift to 19 percent for the 2015-2016 academic year.

Conversely, the College of Science and Technology has held a roughly even distribution of male and female students in declared programs throughout the past two years with women taking a slight majority.  During the 2014-2015 school year, women comprised 52 percent of enrollment and the following year they comprised 51 percent.

In 2015, biology and biochemistry majors claimed the highest percentage of female students in the college at around 66 percent. But these promising numbers take a drastic turn once a technical field like physics is considered. Female students comprised only 22.7 percent of physics majors. The case is even worse in computer science, where women constituted an 15.8 percent minority.

However, simply assessing the number of women in the classrooms of more conventional STEM majors doesn’t provide an accurate picture of the progress being made to eliminate gender disparities.

For example, Temple plays an active role in training aspiring female leaders in STEM education.

In the College of Education, women consistently made up between 53 and 55 percent of those enrolled in secondary math or secondary science education throughout the past three academic years.

Distinct from the College of Education is Temple’s TUteach program, which is directed under CST and allows students to earn a B.S. degree in mathematics or a science along with a teaching certification. This past fall, women made up 46.4 percent of those enrolled in the program compared to 36.1 percent in 2013 – a 10.3 percent increase.

Having more female math and science teachers placed in our middle and high schools across Philadelphia and the nation is key to further bridging the gender diversity gap in the STEM workplace. Young girls need to be surrounded by role models – women who have a basic command of the hard sciences and who can inspire students to act on their curiosities and engage with the world around them.

Temple has worked to create a program in which students have this interaction with female role models through the College of Engineering’s Women’s Engineering Exploration (WE2) program. The program invites female high school students to participate in different projects and work with female professional engineers.

This type of interaction plays a crucial role in influencing the phase in young girls’ development where they could either embrace a burgeoning technical aptitude or shy away from it.

But the need for role models doesn’t end in high school. Female leaders serve an essential purpose in college as well.

“It’s not just serving as a mentor, it’s also serving as a role model,” said Dr. Shohreh Amini, professor of biology and neuroscience. “I see all these female students in my classes, and at the end of the semester they come to me and say… ‘Looking at you, I say, good, women can make it in the sciences.’”

A lack of proper representation of women in science is most evident when looking at Temple’s faculty itself. Amini believes there is a need for more female tenured professors in all STEM departments across the university.

“We have many female faculty, but it’s ironic that I’m the only female full professor of biology,” she said.

The position of full professor is the highest faculty status. Moreover, there are currently no female Carnell professors representing STEM fields. This professorship established by Temple in 1985 recognizes distinguished faculty in areas such as research, scholarship, and teaching.

Temple needs to begin incorporating a top-down approach toward narrowing the gender diversity gap in STEM by hiring and retaining more female professors, who can grab hold of the minds of budding female scientists. Otherwise, Temple simply wouldn’t be practicing what it preaches.

Across the university and nation at large, it is clear there is still much more progress to be made in order to ensure that science doesn’t forever remain a boys’ club.

Melanie Rehfuss can be reached at melanie.leigh.rehfuss@temple.edu or on Twitter @melanierehfuss.

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