“When a female makes it to the higher levels of science and math, she’s going to be good, because all her life she had to fight,” said Ming Lin, a computer science professor at UNC.
“She had to compete with other people, but mostly she had to fight against herself, because she spent years and years surrounded by men, watching her female peers dwindle. By the time she gets there, she’s going to be very good.”
Blake Hauser is very good.
Hauser, a UNC senior majoring in biology and public health, navigated her way through math and science courses in nearly every STEM department, as well as in lab research throughout her four years at UNC.
Now, one of 15 recipients of the competitive Churchill Scholarship, Hauser is considered one of the best and most capable science and engineering students in the world.
But it hasn’t always been easy being a female pursuing STEM fields at UNC, Hauser said.
“If you look at the chemistry department or the physics department — which are classes that we’re required to take for the biology major — it’s definitely more male-dominated, especially in physics,” she said. “In the biology department, it tends to be more females than males, but it’s hard to say whether that’s a product of UNC having more females than males.”
For female STEM majors, post-grad stress is more than just finding a job immediately after graduation. Fewer women reach high-ranking positions in the field, so moving up means more pressure to excel, internally and externally.
Landing the job
According to University Career Services 2015 First Destinations Survey, 24 female respondents graduated with a biology major. Of those 24, only 12 attained jobs in their intended field, and seven were pursuing graduate school. The survey is sent to each graduating senior each year, and responding is optional.
In that same report, it was noted that eight female respondents graduated with a chemistry major in 2015, with four working in their intended field and two pursuing graduate school.
Four female respondents graduated with a math major. Of those four, two were working in a field related to math and two were pursuing graduate school.
Only two female respondents graduated with a computer science major in 2015, one of whom was working in computer science, and the other was pursuing graduate school.
Getting the advanced degree
According to the National Science Foundation’s 2014 STEM Education Data Report, women received 41 percent of doctoral degrees in 2012.
Frederick Ferguson, who graduated in 2015 with degrees in biology and chemistry, is currently interviewing for medical schools.
During his four years at UNC, Ferguson said the STEM environments were largely homogeneous, and he is seeing the same demographics in his medical school interviews.
“In my science and math classes (at UNC), the majority was Caucasian and male. There were very few minorities and not many women,” Ferguson said. “(At medical school interviews) the makeup is almost the same — pretty much mostly white males.”
Hauser said her research in various post-graduate programs has led her to similar conclusions.
“MD-Ph.D. programs still have a very large gender disparity, particularly at lower-tier schools, you see a lot more male applicants and a lot more male matriculates than you do female matriculates,” she said.
Entering the pipeline
Lin said the biggest problem in terms of gender disparities in STEM fields is not finding opportunities but reaching higher levels within STEM fields.
“There are few women who enter the pipeline, and there are even fewer who reach the top percentage-wise,” she said.
Kristy Reed, a first-year biomedical engineering major, said she has begun to experience this as she makes her way from the introductory classes to the higher-level classes.
“UNC is more distributed toward the female end already, so the gender disparity is not quite as significant as it might be in other places,” she said. “But I’ve taken (biomedical engineering) seminars, and I’m in a lab this semester, and it’s majority male for sure.”
Lin said the pipeline problem is societal and epidemic and that it will take a cultural shift with upcoming generations in order to make significant changes possible.
“Companies want to hire more women, but there is simply not enough supply of women,” she said. “It’s a cultural issue and it’s a societal issue; it’s not just something that we can address on our end alone.”
Counter societal norms
Hauser, who works in the Lineberger Cancer Center doing HIV cell entry research, said that although discouraging gender divides exist in STEM classrooms, opportunities that come early and outside of the classroom are ones that encouraged her and others to continue in the STEM fields.
Lin said the computer science department is trying to encourage support for young girls in the STEM fields early and often by making science and math fun and accessible.
“Many girls make decisions about what they want to do as early as middle school or high school, so we’re trying to make an effort to reach out to them early through demos and summer camps,” she said.
Reed is the president and founder of the UNC chapter of Girls Engineering Change, which is dedicated to teaching girls age 8 to 14 hands-on engineering, and she said the goal of the group is also to promote empowerment for young girls interested in STEM.
In her one year at UNC, Reed said she has encountered disparities between the number of males and females in her math and science-related courses, but she believes organizations like Girls Engineering Change can help encourage young girls to not be deterred by the current reality.
“There is a narrative that engineering is just for boys who like math and solving problems, but it overlooks the fact that the field can be really altruistic,” Reed said.
“What we try to show these girls is that if they want to seek out an engineering career, they can actually promote change in their world.”