In STEM Fields, Women Still Face Adversity

The gender gap in STEM industries is a fact that has defined the field and challenged schools, companies and government for a solution. At Manhattan College, the gender gap in engineering programs is both shaping the experience of female student-professionals and breeding a new set of leaders looking to close the gap.

STEM industries have historically been male-dominated. Current figures from the U.S. Department of Labor show that today’s female workforce makes up 47 percent of the total, but in engineering and science careers this percentage drops dramatically. Civil engineering, the largest engineering major at Manhattan College, is a workforce where women make up only 12.1 percent of the population. Only 8.3 percent of U.S. electrical engineers are women, followed by only 7.2 percent in mechanical engineering.

Coupled with such a small percentage of women working in these fields, assistant director of career development Meghan Makarczuk said there is also a steep wage gap in STEM industries.

“If we look at pay, what females professionals are paid versus men, I think there’s a huge gap. Women make overall 82 percent to 87 percent to men,” Makarczuk, who is also a career counselor for the schools of engineering and science, said. In STEM specifically, “Men professionals make almost $16,000 more than women [annually].”

Isolated, these numbers tell a story of inequality. To some extent, they shape the experience of women still in school studying for STEM careers. The systemic wage gap, lack of female leaders in STEM and engineering’s reputation as a “boy’s club” are characteristics of the industry that have somewhat trickled down to the classroom level.

Female engineering students at MC tend to fill disproportionate numbers of leadership roles and excel in their academics. These tech-savvy women at MC are making a name for themselves, despite being the minority.

Alexandra Lehnes is a senior mechanical engineering major and an officer of Tau Beta Pi, the engineering school’s most prestigious national honor society. She said she has noticed that when women pursue STEM, they tend to do better and end up in leadership positions.

“Like with Tau Beta Pi, in our e-board there are six people and four of them are girls. And the society as a whole has a higher girl-to-guy ratio than the school,” she said.

This female success rate in the college’s engineering program may be due to the motivations of the women it attracts.

“I always like a challenge. Just to prove to people that I can do it and that might be true for a lot of other women in STEM,” senior electrical engineering major Katie Smolko said.

Makarzcuk believes that a change in the culture of STEM will follow this rise in female leaders in engineering and science at the college.

“If we look at engineering and science majors at Manhattan College, there are more males in those classes than females. However, outside of the classroom, and see how many of the females versus the males hold e-board positions. So I think that’s something that I like to talk about. I see that only as a huge positive,” she said. “They’re not only taking the classes, learning what they’re doing, but they’re sharing this information and passing this information on to younger students. And I think that’s where we’re going to see the change.”

But the success of these women at the college level does not necessarily translate into a totally equal experience. A few female engineering students said that sometimes they feel that being a woman makes them stick out, which leads to differential treatment in smaller, daily ways rather than outright bias.

“In one of my classes I’m the only girl,” Lehnes said. “Someone [once] cursed in class and apologized. It’s [in] the little things that you’re treated different.”

“On one hand, it’s nice to be treated that way, but on the other hand I want to be treated like everyone else.”

Smolko, who is also an officer of Tau Beta Pi, has found the culture of the classroom in engineering to be very male-dominated as well.

“But being around guys all the time, you’re constantly bombarded with boy humor. I find it funny, so I don’t really mind it, but I’m sure there’s a lot of women that it bothers them,” she said.

In some cases, this feeling of exclusion can even extend to internship experiences and professional life.

“Only in one internship, out of three, have I experienced gender bias. I would hear things like “is it take your daughter to work day?,” senior civil engineering major Katie Lang said. “It is frustrating when people don’t take you seriously.”

But in their academic endeavors, these women have found support rather than marginalization.

Smolko credits that to the people in her department.

“I feel like the professors in my school in my department…just keep it supportive,” Smolko said. “Because they know as well that we need more women in engineering…”

Given its complexity, the problem of women not pursuing STEM is one that has attracted significant attention and has drawn from psychology, education theory and even sociology. But the question is clear: Why do (or don’t) women pursue STEM careers?

The drop-off of female interest in STEM once they get to college is well-documented. Female and male students nearly equally excel in middle and high school advanced math and science courses, but males routinely make up most of the college population studying those topics.

Furthermore, the number of women who pursue STEM careers after graduation is even smaller than the number of women who study STEM.

“Maybe people are coming from traditional families…where they’re teaching [and] telling them because you work long hours, and you have to have kids, you can’t,” Smolko said. “There are people who think traditionally like that and they might have passed that on to their girls.”

Regardless, efforts at MC and beyond are focused on shifting that trend.

Lang is also the president of the college’s chapter Society of Women Engineers. This semester, the club launched a campaign HeforSWE that has engaged both male and female members of the community in supporting women in STEM. The society has even engaged local businesses like Fenwick’s Pub and Jasper Deli in the movement.

“It is basically a play off the UN Women’s movement HeForShe, and it’s all about including men in the fight of equality,” Lang said. “So we want to include our male classmates in SWE, and help them learn why SWE is important and necessary.”

National initiatives, like Girl Scouts of America’s partnersnhip with NASA to develop tech-centered Girl Scout badges, and the White House’s 2013 STEM Education Strategic plan, may also help change the tide.

By focusing on the future, these movements hope to motivate and encourage the next generation of women to be bold and shake up the demographics of STEM industries today.