Women in Lab

Women in STEM careers endure discrimination and face stigma

Kevin Velez, Campus Carrier asst. arts and living editor

Careers that relate to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (or STEM) are often advertised as crucial for our growing society and tend to be well compensated not only for the necessary specialized training, but also for the high demand for the work performed by these careers. The pay and job satisfaction should add a greater appeal to undergraduate students, but STEM fields still face a shortage of workers. 

Despite the increased funding into STEM programs made at most schools, STEM fields face an issue that recently has gained attention and attributes to its inability to attract workers at the rate of its growth. According to the National Science Foundation, women make up less than 30 percent of the STEM field. The large gender gap in STEM fields is accompanied with discrimination and obstacles that often aim to block female involvement, growth and leadership. The discrimination females face in these fields is attributed to the lack of representation. 

Jill Cochran, associate professor of mathematics education, remembers her time at graduate school as being an accurate representation of this statistic. 

“There were definitely classes where I was the only female student and everyone else was male.”

Many female STEM workers associate their time studying for their degrees to the early start of the discrimination that they would soon face. 

Cochran said these moments in her life allowed her to develop the skill to speak up and voice her perspective on certain issues when she was faced with occasional discrimination from other department chairs and higher-level faculty at Berry as chair of the mathematics and computer science departments. Although Cochran finds Berry’s environment supportve most times, she knows that not all STEM environments are. While discrimination among staff was infrequent for Cochran, it still was present. 

Cochran’s knowledge of ongoing female discrimination at other institutions and her passion for female involvement in STEM led her to participate in a grant from the Advancing STEM Careers by Empowering Networked Development (ASCEND) project, a program aimed to assist gender equality in STEM fields by addressing the need to revise certain school institution policies that contradict gender equality. The grant targets to send midcareer female STEM workers with a desire for leadership into leading positions, but also recruits female students into STEM fields. 

The discrimination that Cochran mentioned is not just between faculty and staff, but also among students. Sarah Thompson, a junior studying biology and double minoring in theater and creative technologies, explained she often received comments from her fellow male peers regarding her grades in certain STEM classes. 

“People have told me, ‘you’re just going to get a good grade in there because you are pretty’,” Thompson said.

Thompson attributes comments like these to a feeling of underappreciation towards the validity and seriousness of women in STEM at Berry. She has spent time as a lab assistant, tutor and welding assistant at Hackberry Lab and noticed the occasional crude jokes and language against the female students by male students. Sexual harassment is not absent in the lab, but Thompson says the faculty and team are responsive to spoken claims and address the issues. Thompson notes that society trains females to be quiet and sometimes advises females to receive the crude comments as complements. 

Harmony Petty, a senior majoring in creative technologies and minoring in entrepreneurship and innovation, is an assistant lab director at Hackberry. In a recent semester, Petty explained an occurrence when a male student did not take her advice on a project because he did not trust her opinion as a woman and chose the advice of another male student. She also remembers male students refusing to listen to a female welding lab assistant, because they believed welding was for men. 

Regarding the future of female students in STEM, Harmony would like to see more mentoring between classmates at Berry and setting a safe and open dialogue about the experiences female students have faced. 

With female students facing discrimination from other male students, and sometimes a double standard from certain professors, the groundwork for change is beginning at Berry. Petty and fellow alumni have started the MakeHER program at Hackberry Lab to bring female students from all STEM fields together to discuss their experiences and issues with each other. The program also invites female STEM speakers to discuss their personal experiences and obstacles.

Thompson and Petty know the struggles many female students face in studying STEM fields and advise these students to find mentorship with older students or professors, and to talk also about the issues and discrimination they may face. Cochran explained gaining confidence in yourself is important for female STEM majors and tells younger students to not let in to self-doubt. Programs like MakeHER are welcome to all female STEM majors and are here to benefit and shed light to these discriminations. Student-led programs like MakeHER and faculty members like Cochran devoted to the pursuit of a more welcoming environment in the STEM field, specifically at Berry. Students who want to participate in MakeHER are encouraged to reach out to Petty for more information. To view any sudent projects, read about upcoming and find more information on the resources avalible to students and facutly through the Hackberry lab, visit http://www.hackberrylab.com. 

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