When George Washington University Professor of Computer Science Rachelle Heller talks about women in academic STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), she makes a careful distinction: Although they face many issues, they’re not barriers, but challenges.
“‘Barriers’ means you’re keeping me out. ‘Challenges’ means I can overcome them,” says Heller.
Yet the challenges are significant. Although women are well-represented to an extent — biology, where women hold more than half of all undergraduate faculty positions, is frequently touted as a sign of equality — they are still in the minority in most other areas, especially physics and engineering. But even in biology departments, those numbers only go down with increased levels of expertise.
“As you move up the academic ladder, in terms of institutional prestige and degree level, women’s representation tends to be lower,” says Joanne Cohoon, associate professor in the Science, Technology and Society department at the University of Virginia. “People are misled by the numbers. If you aggregate them, you just don’t see, for example, that women aren’t in engineering.” Not many, anyway. Heller says the number of women in engineering is creeping toward 25 percent of undergrad and graduate faculty around the country, a number that’s still considered something of an accomplishment.
It’s old cultural stereotypes at work — “women aren’t good at math and science” chief among them — even though that has repeatedly been disproven. Cohoon, whose background is in sociology, says there are plenty of social-psychology factors that play into it, and that the message may deter young women from pursuing certain career paths.
“If you look at Bureau of Labor statistics data you can see that other than health care, computing is the gorilla in the economy,” Cohoon says. “And if women don’t go into that, they’re going to get left behind.”
Heller sees a silver lining.
Employers are specifically seeking women to diversify their workforces — for both the political and economic dividends. Among other things, having multiple voices on a team means multiple perspectives, which can only be a positive in STEM subject areas. There’s already plenty of data to show that diverse teams are more successful overall.
“The good news is that everybody’s talking about the role of women in STEM, everybody’s encouraging women in STEM, and there are some outstanding mentoring programs,” Heller says. Chief among these is the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, this year slated for October in Houston and named for the computer scientist and U.S. Navy rear admiral whose work led to the development of COBOL, an early computer programming language. The conference is billed as the world’s largest gathering of women technologists, with opportunities for both students and job seekers. Another is the annual Women in Cybersecurity conference, which will be held later this month in Atlanta.
These kinds of national workshops are necessary to provide something of an “old girl’s network” for women in STEM, especially in academia, says Heller, to help them move forward in fields such as astrophysics, which are not well-populated with women.
“There’s information about what does it mean to ask for a promotion, what does it mean to put your tenure dossier together, where’s the best place to go to school,” she says, adding that men often glean such information just by running into colleagues in the men’s room. “Women still tend to be — if not alone, certainly in the absolute minority, so who are you going to talk to?” Heller says. “Who’s going to give you an idea of how to wend your way through the process?”