On the first day of classes at the institute of technology, I strolled into class, face buried in my phone. I sat down, engrossed in Jimmy Fallon’s latest Instagram post. It wasn’t until a few minutes in that I looked up, and realized that I was one of the four girls in my class. Most of the time, I do not notice the gender imbalance. However, it was at this moment, I realized that I was a minority here.
Low female enrollment in STEM schools is not unusual. In fact, in the 1900’s, some technical schools did not even allow the admittance of female students. According to Georgia Institute of Technology’s (Georgia Tech) timeline of milestones for women, women were not allowed to enroll until 1952, 67 years after Georgia Tech’s opening, and five years after the Massachusetts Institute of Technology began accepting female students. Even when women were admitted to Georgia Tech, they were only allowed to enroll in certain STEM programs; they could only enroll in engineering, architecture, and graduate level applied mathematics. Fortunately, this is not the case anymore, and there has been a recent effort to encourage the female students to attend STEM focused schools.
Having fewer females than males on campus is not the norm at most schools; according to Forbes Magazine, “total enrollment figures show that females outnumbered their male counterparts for the first time in the late 1970’s”. Nonetheless, at STEM schools, the uneven ratio of males to females is still prevalent. Caltech’s undergraduate enrollment indicates that for the 2017-2018 school year, 45% of students were female, while 55% were male. Similarly, Georgia Tech’s enrollment statistics suggest a similar pattern. In 2013, 37.36% of students were female, while 62.64% were male. In 2017, the percent of women enrolled at Georgia Tech was 43%, and 57% for males. While definitely an improvement from past years, the number of women at STEM universities still remain low. This is especially true for universities that are narrowly specialized in a particular area, such as technology or engineering. This correlates to the fact that a decent amount of women do not obtain a degree in STEM. The National Girls Collaborative Project notes that in 2013, the percent of women receiving bachelor’s degrees in computer science, engineering, physical sciences, and mathematics were all below 45%. This trend indicates that a decent amount of women do not choose to obtain a STEM degree, which leads to lower enrollment at science, technology, engineering and mathematics focused universities.
One reason girls may not choose to follow a career in a STEM related field is because of the environment. Although this is not always the case, there is a general attitude that females may be inferior to males. Unfortunately, this sentiment carries over to the classroom as well. Sometimes, being one of the few girls in a class of thirty means “you have to prove yourself over and over to your classmates, professors, and yourself”, as said by Molly-Kate Gavello, a third year Nuclear and Radiological Engineer at Georgia Tech. Gavello also notes that “after a while it gets tiring, but you get used to it”. Similarly, Jessica Pattassery, an Industrial Engineer, notes that when working in groups with males, “mainly when it’s a STEM related project, they tend to take charge and ignore me, assuming that they know better”. Women should not have to settle for being constantly questioned about their knowledge, when they have just as much to contribute to the classroom as men (if not more). This behavior toward woman can be discouraging, and sometimes lead women to question and compare their intelligence to their male peers. This is a toxic environment not only in schools, but also in the working world, and is one reason why women do not study STEM.
All that being said, this should not be a deterrent if one wants to study STEM. Many people recognize what women have to offer, and understand that “women, faculty, and students often have a different perspective on problems”, and that STEM universities need “people with as much creativity, with as many different backgrounds, as possible, working on these solutions”, as said by faculty at Georgia Tech. To facilitate female enrollment in STEM universities, there has been a push to encourage women to pursue a career in STEM. For example, the University of Maryland, Baltimore Campus, has a Center for Women in Technology, that offers mentoring, seminars, networking, and more. Furthermore, there are national organizations, such as Women in Engineering, Association for Women in Science, and the National Girls Collaborative Project, that are available on campuses all across the country. Other efforts include recruiting girls as early as middle school. For example, Georgia Tech’s Women in Engineering holds a Technology, Engineering, and Computing camp, which introduces girls to areas such as computer science and robotics. These types of organizations help create a sense of community for women in an otherwise male-dominated field. Targeting girls at a young age may help familiarize and expose girls to technology, allowing them to determine whether science, technology, etc. is a good fit for them. The underlying idea of these types of programs is to normalize women in STEM, to recognize, and to celebrate what women have to contribute to those fields of study.
Although being a minority may be intimidating, that’s even more of a reason to get a degree in STEM. If you like it, then try it out. As cliché as it sounds, the worst that can happen is you fall down. In that case, just get back up. And if it’s not for you, there are hundreds of fields of study, and the right one is out there waiting for you. At the end of the day, make sure that you love what you are doing. And if STEM is the right choice for you, surround yourself with like-minded people who want to see you succeed, and just keep pushing. More female representation is needed to prove that they are just as capable as men, and to put an end to the mindset that women are not cut out for STEM. Although it may be difficult, as said by Gavello, it makes success even sweeter when “you’re right and they’re wrong, it’s like you’re proving that we can be equal, if not better, when given a fair shot”.