Author: Hriday Bhambhvani
Institution: University of Alabama at Birmingham
An increasing amount of data suggest that women are disproportionately represented in STEM fields: science, technology, engineering, and math. According to the National Science Foundation’s 2015 report on Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering, women comprise fewer than 20% of Bachelor’s degrees conferred in computer science and engineering. Additionally, many women in STEM fields report discrimination from colleagues and mentors alike. For example, a landmark study published a few years ago demonstrated that science faculty members at research universities rated male-named applicants more competent and deserving of a higher starting salary than female-named applicants even though their resumes were identical (1). To gain more insight into the experiences of female undergraduates with discrimination in STEM studies, I interviewed two female undergraduate students at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB).
Maggie is a third year student pursuing a dual major in electrical and biomedical engineering, both largely male dominated fields. As she has progressed into upper-level engineering courses, this demographic disparity has become more stark. A large component of most schools’ engineering curriculum is group work, which, according to Maggie, can be problematic at times. “Group projects can be difficult because sometimes there will be male group members who disregard my opinions or ideas and can be condescending at times,” she remarked. When asked if this is a frequent occurrence, Maggie shook her head as she responded, “Not at all. UAB is great about protecting diversity and creating a safe climate for all students.”
Maggie is also involved in research in UAB’s Department of Biomedical Engineering under a male mentor. When asked about discrimination in the research realm, she replied, “I haven’t personally experienced it with my mentor; he’s fantastic. In fact, he told me from the start that if I ever feel like I’m not being treated properly to come to him immediately. And that’s so important!” I followed up by asking if she had heard of any instances of discrimination from friends, to which she replied, “I have heard of some unpleasant stories, both in and out of UAB, of mentors that haven’t been very supportive of women in the lab, so it’s definitely an issue worth discussing.”
The second student I interviewed opted for the pseudonym of Sally Seashells. Sally is also a third year student and double majoring in physics and mathematics. Like engineering, both physics and mathematics courses at UAB are predominantly male dominated. One difference, however, is that group work is less emphasized than in engineering. This does not, unfortunately, preclude Sally from underhanded discrimination. “When I was taking advanced calculus, I ran into a disproportionate amount of immediate disregard from many of my male peers. Someone would ask a question at our table, and I’d try to respond but get immediately talked over and ignored, even if my proofs were valid.” I followed up by inquiring about the professor teaching the class, with whom Sally was content overall, as she recalled, “The instructor, on the other hand, was fantastic for the most part. There were, however, a couple occasions when I would try to present an alternate proof and get shot down without so much as making an attempt. Maybe this has nothing to do with sex, but I noticed many of my male counterparts didn’t run into this at all.” Immediately following this, Sally shrugged her shoulders and added, “Having said all this, it’s important to note that these comprise the minority of my experiences at UAB. For the most part, I haven’t had any problems related to my gender.”
Like Maggie, Sally is involved in undergraduate research with UAB’s Department of Physics. Sally works under a male mentor as well and reports quite a similar experience to Maggie. She hasn’t experienced any sex-based discrimination first-hand, though has heard reports of it from other female peers: “My mentor has been nothing short of stellar. He’s always available to listen to my concerns if I have any and never takes my presence in the lab or ideas for granted. I have heard of some of my other female counterparts who haven’t been so lucky, though.”
Women in STEM has been a hot topic for some time now. They are a demographic that is notably underrepresented in certain hard science fields, such as engineering and physics. The experiences offered by Maggie and Sally suggest that most women face some shape or form of firsthand discrimination, though perhaps it is less prevalent than the public would posit. However, this conclusion is severely limited by the nature of my investigation – anecdotal and limited in sample size. Nevertheless, it is interesting to note this potential disconnect between the inside and outside view of women in STEM.
Moss-Racusin C.A.; Dovidio J.F.; Brescoll V.L.; Graham M.J.; Handelsman J. Science faculty’s subtle gender biases favor male students. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA. 2012, 109(41): 16474–16479.