Incoming: Real Talk About the STEM Gender Gap

November 1, 2018
By Terry Halvorsen

As I have said in previous articles, I believe it is important to national security and the success of the country that we consider how to get young people more involved in STEM. Diversity also is important. While nearly as many women hold undergraduate degrees as men overall, they make up only about 30 percent of all STEM degree holders.

I thought it would be interesting and educational to get the perspective of a young woman majoring in engineering at Vanderbilt University, where 31 percent of engineering students are women, slightly above the national average.

I thank Patricia Wheeler, the daughter of a good friend, for sharing some of her thoughts, experiences and insights. Wheeler presents a unique view on the disadvantages and challenges women in STEM face as well as some advantages they may enjoy.

I recognize that this article only reflects one woman’s view, which others—men and women alike—may not share, but I hope it will stimulate conversation about a critical topic.

As always, your counterfire is welcome.

 

Wheeler’s comments:

My first encounter with the gender gap was in my high school engineering classes. Out of about 30 students, I was one of only three or four girls—which was often to my advantage. My engineering teachers always remembered me, and they would frequently recommend that I join some club or go to an engineering event because more female representation was needed. This encouragement, ultimately, was the reason I became so involved in the various engineering programs at my high school.

My experience in college has been similar in many aspects. Vanderbilt University has a lot of resources for women in STEM that give me opportunities for mentorship, clubs and other extracurricular experiences. The resources that women in STEM have available can offer them an advantage if they are willing to seek out and use these resources properly. However, I have found there is often not enough of the resources for all women. For example, Vanderbilt has a women in STEM mentorship program with many mentees but not always enough mentors.

In addition, barriers that women in STEM face come from cultural and social aspects in the STEM workplace. Ideally, individuals of both genders could work side by side in an engineering lab with no effect on working relationships, production or the work environment. However, the reality is different. I experienced this firsthand while working in a research lab. All the other students working in the lab were men. They quickly formed as a group and networked among themselves, along with the mentors, who also were men. I overcame this challenge by being the first to volunteer for demanding projects and never being afraid to ask for help when needed.

The path for women to be fully accepted in STEM fields will take time, just as it has for women in other male-dominated fields. However, more women entering STEM career fields continue to break barriers.

Although women face significantly more challenges than men in the STEM workplace, more opportunities are now being created for younger women to prepare them for a future in STEM. More programs are being developed to target girls at a younger age, fostering their interest in STEM. For example, in addition to changes in curriculum, elementary schools are holding STEM fairs where girls can interact with a variety of interesting STEM projects.

Mentorship is another way to target the female population interested in STEM. Some of the best opportunities for young girls and their future in STEM is through mentors providing feedback on important skills, such as leadership and communication, while offering networking opportunities and generally boosting confidence for women.

The future in STEM for young women is exciting. Embracing the hard work, stepping up to the challenges and pushing through the barriers will lead to great rewards.

Terry Halvorsen, the chief information officer (CIO) and an executive vice president with Samsung Electronics, is the former U.S. Defense Department CIO. He also has served as the Department of the Navy CIO.

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