Fostering Women in STEM
Published: Friday, January 31, 2014
Updated: Friday, January 31, 2014 02:01
Facing low retention rates and classes dominated by men, science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) professors at Georgetown are looking for creative ways, including children’s books and working with Girl Scouts of the United States of America, to encourage women, both young and old, to pursue careers in the hard sciences.
According to a 2012 study done by the White House Council on Women and Girls, although women account for about 50 percent of the workforce, they only hold 25 percent of jobs in STEM fields.
Some feel that this lack of female participation, and thus the lack of female role models in the sciences, discourages younger generations of women from entering the field.
“If women feel that there’s nobody like them, then they’re not as encouraged,” biology professor Janet Mann said. “They might be less comfortable or feel like they don’t belong there somehow.”
Those women who possess careers in STEM fields may neglect to reach out to the next generation of girls because of the competitiveness of the field, according to associate computer science professor Lisa Singh.
“It’s so hard to become a successful woman in this field that you tend to just focus on becoming a successful woman, as opposed to bringing more women into the field,” Singh said.
According to Singh, it is not uncommon for female students to drop out of the field entirely because of pressure from themselves and their male counterparts.
“What I found was that it was not that women weren’t really good at [computer science]. It was much more that women felt that they weren’t good at this because their male counterparts would talk about how good they were at it,” Singh said.
Singh leads the Women’s Computer Science group, a group open to any female majoring or minoring in computer science that aims to retain and promote computer science among women.
To that end, the group invites local alumni working in the computer science field to campus to talk about their experiences and typically holds an informal meeting during study days at the end of each semester. Additionally, the group sponsors one or two students each year to go to the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing conference, with the support of the computer science department and the Clare Boothe Luce Program.
“Once women decide to come into computer science [in Georgetown], we seem to be retaining them. That’s huge,” Singh said.
Yet according to a 2011 U.S. Department of Commerce study, while about 40 percent of men with STEM college degrees go on to work in STEM-related fields, only 26 percent of women with STEM degrees pursue STEM careers.
Singh and Mann are two professors trying to reverse this trend for the next generation by reaching out to girls and introducing them to STEM at a young age.
This spring, Singh and the Women’s Computer Science group will work with a Girl Scout troop to help them earn a technology badge. Singh anticipates that undergraduates majoring in computer science will teach the troop simple programming skills.
“If it goes well, maybe this is something we can do as outreach where we can hook up with Girl Scout troops and show them how to do something interesting with technology early on,” Singh said.
Mann has been doing her part by collaborating with author Pamela S. Turner to write “The Dolphins of Shark Bay,” a children’s book that details some of the work that Mann has done with dolphins. Mann said that it was partially inspired by Turner’s desire to showcase women in the field. The book was published in fall 2013 as part of the Scientists in the Field series.
“I hate it when women give up on science, and I worked on the children’s book for precisely this reason,” Mann said.
For female STEM majors at Georgetown, the prospect of entering a male-dominated field has proven a welcome challenge.
“It’s exciting for me to grow up and potentially be that role model for young girls and see women in my class and my generation come up and be that voice in the sciences for girls,” Kelsey Read (NHS ’17) said.
As a computer science minor, Read is studying in a field that nationally is 69 percent male, on the undergraduate level.
Marybeth Arcodia (COL ’14) admitted that while she has never felt out of place in her major classes on campus, she recognized that, after college, she would likely face a bias as a female math major in the workforce.
“I knew that [being a woman] would be kind of a pro and a con. I knew that it would be good because I knew that there was a majority of male math majors, so that would help me with jobs,” Arcodia said. “But there’s also sort of a discrimination aspect. It’s not really prevalent in Georgetown, but after, in the greater scheme of things, people automatically think that girls can’t do math.”
A male-dominated field, as well as increased job security actually attracted computer science major Olivia Duff (COL ’16) to her field. Duff expressed that any difference between the male and female skillset were, ultimately, cultural.
“I think its just a cultural thing that boys are … that we think [boys] are better at math and science,” Duff said. “Even though I think that’s just in your head since you were little. You just don’t think about it.”