Women catalyze the field of science

Carolyn Sherff, a biological sciences professor, assists freshman psychology major Kelsey Tonsfeldt with an experiment. Photo by Caitie Guttry

Growing up, Allison Heinonen, a junior health sciences major, didn’t let the fact that her father’s medical practice was all men get in the way of her dream to follow her father and grandfather into the medical field.

Women comprise 48 percent of the U.S. workforce and 24 percent of workers in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields, according to the 2011 U.S. Department of Commerce Women in STEM Executive Summary. Half as many women work in STEM jobs, as would be expected if gender representation in STEM professions mirrored the overall workforce.

“I think that women are perceived as not as competent as men in some aspects of science,” Heinonen said. “I think that, if anything, that’s the motivation to keep pursuing what you want to pursue. It’s exciting to be put up to the challenge.”

If anything has changed in the way STEM fields are practiced, it’s that a lot more women are participating. According to American Association of University Women, the percent of doctorates earned by women in individually-selected STEM fields has more than doubled from 1996 to 2006.

Women earned 57.3 percent of bachelor’s degrees in all fields in 2013 and 50.3 percent of science and engineering bachelor’s degrees according to the National Girls Collaborative Project. The gender wage gap is less in STEM fields than non-STEM fields, with women being paid 21 percent smaller than men in the overall workplace compared to 14 percent in STEM fields, according to the Equal Rights Advocates Women in STEM journal.

“I think the industry is changing, honestly. If you look at the amount of women who get their bachelor’s in biological sciences, it’s more women than men graduating with those degrees,” Heinonen said.

Justine Stewart, a ‘15 digital arts alumna, is now working as a software engineer at Thales Avionics, a company that makes in-flight entertainment systems. Her passion for science and engineering started at a young age, and she followed it all the way to her career, she said.

“My parents let me use a computer when I was a kid, and my dad brought me to his work, an aerospace engineering firm, when I was still in elementary school,” Stewart said. “Even passive exposure to these technologies builds curiosity. When I experienced judgment and challenges later in my education and career, I always remembered that curiosity and drive.”

It wasn’t until pursuing a minor in game development at Chapman that she felt like she belonged, Stewart said.

“When I found the few other women in computer science classes, I gained a better sense of belonging. It only takes one or two friends to feel welcome,” she said.

During the State of the University address in February, President Daniele Struppa announced his five-year plan, which includes adding a new school of engineering in the science center. The new Center for Science and Technology, set to open its doors fall 2018, is the next step for science at Chapman.

“I don’t know if you’re in other universities, in another industry, or even other subjects outside of biology, but here, I don’t feel any different being a woman rather than a man in the day-to-day running of the department. In teaching, in talking to other people here, I find it a non-issue,” said Carolyn Sherff, a biological sciences professor in the Schmid College of Science and Technology.

Graphic by Jackie Cohen

One of the possible factors contributing to the discrepancy of women in the sciences is the less family-friendly flexibility in the STEM fields, according to the Women in STEM Executive Summary.

“What I notice is where you find the difference is not in, say, getting a job, but what you do in your trajectory after that,” Sherff said.

A Pew Research Center study found that in 2013, 42 percent of women said they had reduced their hours at work to take care of a family member, compared to 28 percent of men. Similarly, 27 percent of women and 10 percent of men said they quit their job to care for a family member.

“That’s where I think is the next big step, is when it becomes a family issue,” Sherff said. “You have to have the ability and place to have things like paternity leave, and then it has to become socially acceptable to use.”

Although the number of women working in the STEM fields are growing each year, there is still an inadequacy of interest and pursuit at the collegiate level of mathematics and engineering, according to the Women in STEM Executive Summary.

“I’m hoping to accomplish creating a better name for women in science and making it a more normalized job or path of life, to be in science,” said Zibby Smith, a sophomore sociology major. “I would want girls who want to pursue science to know how great it is and to follow their passion, if they’re passionate about science, and to go for it because they will get so much support from other women in the industry and women in general.”

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