The first day of anything is hard. It could be a new school, a new class or a new job. Imagine if you walked into that brand-new setting and realized you were the only woman.
That situation has become increasingly common for female engineers. The fields of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) are becoming the ideal choice for a dependable career. In 2016, Clark College built a new building to house the growing program. Yet as the program grows, so does the gender gap. Especially when it comes to engineering.
On the surface the situation might not seem like such an issue. Recent counts show women holding their own in biology. According to the National Girls Collaborative Project website, over half of the undergraduate degrees in biology are earned by women. The website Catalyst puts that number at 59%. The statistics remains in the 50’s for master’s degrees and Pd.D.’s.
The problem becomes apparent in every other field. The numbers drop dramatically the further you go with mathematics at 43%. Physical sciences are lower at about 38.5%.
Those statistics are higher than the number of women in the engineering field. While the National Girls Collaborative Project estimates 19.3%, Catalyst puts the number closer to 18.7%. The emphasis on STEM is going up. The number of women in those degrees has remained the same.
Statistics are one thing. Experience is another. Clark College engineering professor Tina Barsotti has firsthand knowledge with the gender differences in the field.
“That’s just a societal thing,” she said. “Engineering has been considered a male profession. Not that there haven’t been women engineers, because there have been a lot of successful women engineers, but society as a whole considers it a male profession.”
Clark students Megan Sarygin and Madison Rooney had similar stories.
“My mom was always like, ‘You could be a doctor!’ and I’m like, I don’t like anatomy and physiology,” said Sarygin. “I like math and physics, and . . . for some reason in my head I wasn’t ever like ‘I’m going to do engineering!’, because no one ever told me.”
“When I was growing up I wasn’t told about engineering or STEM,” Rooney said. “I just wasn’t taught about it. People were like, ‘Oh, you could be a nurse!’”
Clark College engineering instructor Nicholas Macias has also seen the gap. “Unfortunately, in terms of the number of engineers that I’ve worked with, the majority has been male,” he said. “And in most of the classes I’ve taught, the majority has been male. That’s just where the numbers are right now.” According to Macias, in a typical class of his with 60 students, only about five to ten are women.
During fall quarter of the 2018-19 school year, he taught a Computer Science 101 class with 18 students. Nine of them were female. On the surface, the half-and-half ratio is not all that significant. However, this was the first time he had seen an equal number of men and women.
Despite this, Macias does not believe engineering is an inherently male field. “I mean, there’s obviously something going on,” he said. “I don’t think we’ve figured out what it is.”
Fortunately, efforts to increase gender diversity are in motion. One of the prime examples of this is in the NERD (Not Even Remotely Dorky) Girls Club. The biggest takeaway from the club comes from the bond members feel.
“When you’re the only woman in the class it’s difficult to feel that sense of connection,” Barsotti said. “So NERD Girls allows us to create a community of women who want to study STEM, because NERD Girls isn’t just engineering, it’s all of STEM. But a lot of students are engineering, computer science students.”
NERD Girls look to future generations of women hoping to be engineers. They organize events for elementary school students and give them a glimpse of the possibilities. “We see a lot of elementary school students that are interested and come to these events,” said Clark student Amanda Frazier.
The goal isn’t just to spread the word to the girls, though. It was important to let everyone know that engineering is not a male profession.
“I think that’s why it helps when we go to elementary schools and they see a lot of women engineers behind the table,” Sarygin said. “Not only female elementary school students but everybody can see that girls can do engineering.”
Despite the worrying statistics shown today, Clark students are hopeful for a change.