Women face challenges, opportunities in male-heavy STEM

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Editor’s Note: This story pairs with the sidebar “Push for STEM has challenged the BYU College of Humanities to rethink how it prepares students for workforce”

Lacey Murphy entered high school thinking she wanted to become a novelist. That dream changed when she took an Advanced Placement biology class as a sophomore.

“I would just sit there and read my biology textbook just for fun,” she said. “And I was just enthralled.”

After graduating from the University of Utah with her bachelor’s degree in medical laboratory science and completing her master’s degree in immunotoxicology at Montana State University, Murphy now works in a clinical laboratory at the Salt Lake Veterans Affairs Hospital.

She does multiple types of medical testing. Her work can reach into areas like clinical chemistry, hematology, blood banking or microbiology — though chemistry is her favorite.

“I see something different everyday,” Murphy said.

Status of women in STEM

In 2015, women like Murphy filled 24 percent of all science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM) jobs in the U.S., according to a report released in November 2017 by the Economics and Statistics Administration within the U.S. Department of Commerce.

According to a January 2017 report by the U.S. Bureau of Labor, there were 8.6 million STEM jobs as of May 2015. This means women held approximately 2 million of those jobs, leaving the other 6.5 million STEM jobs to males.

In February 2017, a former teacher started the Hope Institute of Science for Girls in Philadelphia, where she now teaches STEM to preschool-aged girls, according to a story by CBS News.

In a 2016 article titled “Gender Gap in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM): Current Knowledge, Implications for Practice, Policy, and Future Directions” Ming-Te Wang and Jessica L. Degol said they found multiple explanations for women’s underrepresentation in STEM.

Explanations included different career preferences for men and women, the different ways men and women balance work with family, and gender discrimination.

Wang and Degol said their goal was to increase women’s career options like capitalizing on female cognitive strengths, cultivating women’s interests in STEM and removing stereotypes and obstacles that could “cloud career decisions.”

STEM education

Kathryn Rasmussen graduated from BYU in April in computer science and was president of the BYU Women in Computer Science club. She said females have different experiences than males in computer science.

She said the beginning computer science classes are difficult, and it’s easy to feel lonely.

“Our biggest focus is to help women feel accepted and feel hopeful about being in the major,” she said.

To cultivate a community in the major, Women in Computer Science hosts weekly Code Together nights where girls work on homework, personal projects and get help from their peers.

Rasmussen said there are no female computer science professors, though she was supported by her male professors.

“A lot of them are very vocal about their support and how much they just don’t care about men versus women,” she said.

However, Murphy said she valued having a female mentor.

“Had I not had my female mentor, I really don’t know that I would have stayed in graduate school,” she said. Her mentor was able to help her progress in science and help her emotionally.

STEM workforce

Erica Zaugg graduated from BYU in 2016 with her degree in civil engineering and said her STEM experience was positive because her college offered the Women in Engineering and Technology club, retreats and mentoring opportunities for women.

Zaugg now works at a civil engineering design company doing subdivision design.

“You make a huge impact,” she said. “Civil engineering — it’s everything. All of the roads, all of the water, all of the infrastructure that everyone uses.”

Zaugg also said there are opportunities in her field to work from home, and she is confident in her ability to always find employment.

Jill Lundell is a statistician who received her master’s in 1998 and is now working on her doctorate at Utah State University. She said she loves her job because she is interested in many subjects, and statistics allows her to dabble in everything.

She also enjoys the visual component of statistics that speaks to her interest in art.

“I think we don’t think about that visual, creative aspect when we think of sciences, and it definitely exists in statistics,” Lundell said.

Obstacles faced in pursuing STEM

Zaugg said she remembers a BYU professor speaking about sexual harassment in a class. She also had a negative experience when a fellow male student asked her if she was going to drop out of school because she was eight months pregnant.

“I remember being like, ‘You wouldn’t ask anyone else that,'” Zaugg said.

Murphy related the experience of being questioned, interrupted and talked over by her male peers in school.

Additionally, Rasmussen said she had seen what she called “sexist jokes” on comments that help peers explain computer code to each other. She said she recalled guidance being given that “‘comments should be so readable, your mom could know how to do it,’ as if mothers knew less about computer science than fathers.”

Sarah Skriloff graduated from BYU in April in sociology and started working as a program manager for Microsoft. She said she pursued sociology to refine her research skills, which she now applies to design and technology.

Skriloff remembered facing a moral dilemma about choosing to work, recalling an experience in a previous employer’s office.

“I remember just sitting in his office crying about like, ‘I feel so much pressure to stay home, but I really want to work. And yet I feel like that’s a sinful thing to do,'” Skriloff said. “I really resent that I had that pressure that what I was loving, that my goal to make technology for everyone — to benefit the whole world — was a bad thing for me.”

Now Skriloff’s 17-year-old sister has expressed an interest in working at NASA.

“I love seeing how confident my sister is and how confident she feels that she is going to have a good experience. Because I think that she will,” Skriloff said about her sister’s future journey exploring STEM. “I don’t think she’s wrong. I really hope it is different from my experience.”

Women’s STEM future

Many organizations and educational efforts supporting girls’ interest in STEM.

Timpview High School junior, Quincy Taylor is on the math team, has taken Advanced Placement math and science classes and also heads the Timpview High Girls Who Code Club.

“My initial exposure to STEM was actually through my grandfather, who is a physicist and works at a lab in D.C.,” she said. Her parents have also been supportive of her interest in STEM.

She said she’s met a number of supportive teachers, but her calculus teacher, Anne Crosland, “really advocates for girls in the STEM fields.”

However, Taylor said, the school administration hasn’t taken as much notice of STEM efforts at Timpview as she would like. She said the school’s college and career counselor only recently found out about the Girls Who Code Club, which has been running for two years.

Taylor originally got the club off the ground, and eight to ten girls usually attend activities. Members have had lessons from BYU students, field trip opportunities and have worked to help interested girls find internships.

Maggie Betts has quite a few years before she can apply for college, but if you ask the 10-year-old living in Logan, Utah, what she wants to be when she grows up, she will tell you she wants to be a “rocket engineer” for NASA. Maggie’s mom, Laura Betts, said since Maggie was 3 years old she has loved astronomy.

“My husband gave her this textbook that she would flip through all the time. It was called ‘Our Universe,'” Laura Betts said. “That was (Maggie’s) favorite book when she was 3 years old.”

She said things are different from her experience growing up.

“It’s not so weird for a girl to have an interest in science and things anymore like it used to be,” she said.

Laura Betts said she and her family see science in action through spending time camping, going to observatories and watching meteor showers together. Maggie Betts also recently got a telescope for her birthday and has been working to identify craters on the moon.

“She was telling me all about the things that they’re finding in the Kuiper belt, and I didn’t even know what that was as a kid,” Laura Betts said. “It’s just been fun to learn it with her.”

Laura Betts said Maggie has no doubt NASA and astronomy is where she is headed.

“She knows that she can be whatever she wants to be,” Laura Betts said. “I just really hope that that’s how she approaches the rest of her life.”

She said their family went to an “eclipse party” in Idaho for the August 2017 solar eclipse.

Maggie got up early to watch the eclipse, but was disappointed when she saw cloud cover, Laura Betts said in a Facebook message.

“I said, ‘Mags, as an astronomer, clouds will be your nemesis,'” Laura Betts said.

“When I work at NASA,” Maggie Betts told her mom, “I will go above the clouds.”

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