Although women are still underrepresented in the science and engineering workforce, a new study from the National Science Board revealed that gap is smaller than in the past.
The Science and Engineering Indicators 2012 report cites research data on workforce diversity from 2008, which states women represented 27 percent of the workers in these fields — up slightly from the previous decade when the average was 23 percent. The largest gap was in engineering, where women constituted 13 percent of the workforce.
Although the gap has lessened, some faculty said there could be a greater number of women studying these areas at the university.
Kristen Barber, an assistant professor of sociology, said even with advancements over the last 50 years, women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics — or STEM — still face discrimination.
“We cultivate a culture where we believe that men are inherently better at math, science, and spatial skills,” Barber said. “And these beliefs affect teachers’, employers’ and co-workers’ opinions about women’s abilities and whether or not they should be in this area of study or work.”
Barber said women are in the minority when they enter STEM fields, and their gender can affect their promotion chances and overshadow their achievements.
“Such gender bias paves a smooth road for men into STEM at the same time it creates roadblocks for women,” she said.
While the study shows little movement to close the gender gap, Michael Behrmann, automotive technology department, said some programs are looking to attract women to them.
“Often times, many companies and corporations provide opportunities such as internships and scholarships geared towards trying to attract a diverse group into their programs of study,” he said.
Behrmann said the automotive technology department also offers scholarships that specifically look to promote diversity within the industry. He also said women should not take a general viewpoint on careers in science and engineering.
“Don’t go off general perceptions,” he said. “A lot of people say, ‘Oh, I don’t want to possibly be working on cars for a career.’ Well, that’s not what our graduates are doing.”
Automotive technology program graduates oftentimes end up in corporate engineering environments, Behrmann said.
Barber said having women mentor other women could be crucial to cultivating new paths for women in STEM.
“Research shows that men tend not to mentor women,” she said. “In an area that is so heavily male-dominated, women often go without the mentorship necessary to support study and professionalization in STEM.”
Barber said companies should work to create a friendlier environment for women.
“(We need to) work to create a warm and supportive environment for women, who are often isolated and face a chilly reception both in STEM programs and related workplaces,” she said.
D’Arcy Stone, a doctoral student studying physics, said she has never felt discriminated against in her field of study.
“Everyone that I’ve encountered, from fellow colleagues in my classes to professors and beyond, even in the job field, I’ve never felt that I was different than any other guy on the team,” she said.
Stone said students sometimes have the mindset they will not be good at math or science. When they do work in those areas of study, she said, those mindsets cause them to underperform to their fullest potential.
The university will hold the Expand Your Horizons program for young women in fifth through ninth grades Oct. 27, according to the university’s mathematics website. The website states the program’s goal is not only to provide young women with positive experiences in math-related fields, but also to give attendees the chance to meet with role models in those fields.
“Go out and talk to these programs,” he said. “Don’t let anything hold you back.”