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Women engineering into the future

Numbers of women in STEM fields growing, but equality elusive

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Wendy Weiman’s high school counselors suggested social work as a good career for her.

But even as a child, Weiman knew she wanted to become an engineer. And as she got older, her curiosity for how things work only grew.

“I just liked it,” Weiman, 49, said. “I had a desire to learn math and science — specifically civil engineering. You get to design and see things happen. You get to be a part of it all.”

Weiman has done just that: She’s the project engineer for North Table Mountain Water and Sanitation District, overseeing the district’s projects and new development.

But the path to get there — in fields long dominated by men — wasn’t always easy.

“When you’re the only woman, sometimes it’s difficult,” Weiman said. “But as more women enter STEM careers, I anticipate that a lot of the prejudices will go away.”

Fighting culture, gender bias

The number of women in the engineering field has grown since Weiman graduated with a civil engineering degree from Colorado School of Mines in 1996, but women remain drastically underrepresented in science and engineering careers.

According to a 2017 report from the U.S. Department of Commerce Economics and Statistics Administration, women in 2015 filled 47 percent of all U.S. jobs but only 24 percent of STEM — or science, technology, engineering and math — jobs.

Studies point to cultural and gender stereotypes and biases that eventually discourage interested girls from pursuing those careers and social and environmental prejudices that can make the workplace difficult for success.

“Not only are people more likely to associate math and science with men than with women, people often hold negative opinions of women in ‘masculine’ positions, like scientists or engineers,” a 2010 report by the American Association of University Women (AAUW) concluded. “When a woman is clearly competent in a ‘masculine’ job, she is considered less likable. Because both likability and competence are needed for success in the workplace, women in STEM fields can find themselves in a double bind.”

But a growing awareness around the importance of supporting and encouraging STEM interests among young girls, along with universities’ commitment to providing support systems and changing cultural environments are beginning to make a difference, academics and professionals say.

“We believe that teams having diverse perspectives and complementary skill sets generate the best solutions and innovations,” said Mines President Paul Johnson, who is driving an effort to increase female enrollment from its current 29 percent to 40 percent by 2024, the school’s 150th anniversary. “Thus, we should have a STEM workforce that more closely mirrors our general population. This means we need to roughly double the number of women pursuing STEM careers.”

Many of the women entering the field say they are determined to make that happen.

“Don’t be afraid of the reputation that there are no women in STEM because there are,” said Miranda Schiffbauer, a 2017 Arvada West graduate pursuing a degree in civil engineering at Mines, a world-renowned teaching and research university in the engineering and applied science fields that offers expertise in the development and stewardship of the Earth’s natural resources. “And it’s growing.”

Her fellow Arvada West graduate Leigh Robinson, studying chemical and biological engineering at Mines, agrees.

“If I can be somebody who is a strong leader in perhaps an area that is known to be male-dominated,” she said, “I’ll feel that that is a great accomplishment.”

Situations can be challenging

According to the 2010 report by the American Association of University Women, girls and boys take math and science courses in roughly equal numbers in elementary, middle and high school, and graduate equally prepared to pursue science and engineering majors in college.

However, the report states that fewer women than men pursue those careers and only 20 percent of college graduates who earn a bachelor’s degree in physics, engineering and computer science are women. Their representation continues to decline at the graduate level and again in the transition to the workplace.

Percentages of women studying in STEM fields at several area universities vary, but overall indicate a higher number of women enrolling and graduating in those areas.

Of the 1,034 bachelor’s degrees in 13 different engineering disciplines that Mines awarded in the 2017 graduation fiscal year — which includes summer and fall 2016 and spring 2017 — nearly 27 percent of them were earned by women. At the University of Denver, 296 degrees in engineering, computer science, natural sciences and mathematics were awarded in the 2017 graduation fiscal year, and slightly more than 52 percent of them went to women.

Graduation data show the number of female graduates has increased almost every year since 2014, and enrollment figures at several universities show more women are enrolling in STEM fields.

About 27 percent of Metropolitan State University of Denver’s 19,500 students are pursuing a STEM degree — 40 percent of those are female.

At University of Colorado-Boulder, 38 percent of students in first-year engineering classes are women.

These numbers suggest that more women pursue STEM degrees in Colorado in comparison to the rest of the nation. This could be because the state has a multitude of K-12 STEM school choices and excellent colleges and universities that offer science and technology degrees, said Ana Cross, who leads Lockheed Martin’s Crew Module Engineering Integration Team on Orion and is a director for civil programs at Stellar Solutions.

In addition, the state has a number of career choices that offer good pay for doing work in exciting areas, such as space exploration, Cross added. For example, she said, Jefferson County is ranked second in the nation for private aerospace employment.

Young female students need “to know that working in a STEM field is an option for them,” Cross said.

MORE: Meet some of the girls and women in STEM

Whether it be STEM or non-STEM, it’s important that society shows women that they can pursue and accomplish whatever they want, said Meagen Puryer, 24, a grad student at the University of Denver focusing on mechanical engineering with a concentration in fluids.

Puryer will be the first in her immediate family to earn a college degree.

“We don’t have to perform one way to fit into society,” she said. “There’s no reason it shouldn’t be equal in the workforce.”

Still, the stereotypes exist, showing up in sometimes small ways.

Puryer recalled a comment from a male student who sat next to her on her first day of college. Although he didn’t object to her presence, he did express surprise to see a woman studying mechanical engineering.

Since then, Puryer has twice been the only female in her classes. But none of her professors or fellow students has treated her any differently, she said.

Christine Reilly, 21, who is pursuing a master’s in aerospace engineering from the University of Colorado-Boulder, said people have told her certain opportunities were given to her because she’s a woman, rather than because of her qualifications. Others expect her to be the note-taker on a project rather than doing a more hands-on job.

“It’s not that they intend to do it,” said Reilly, one of about 20 women of the 130 or 140 students in her senior project class. But they are surprised that a woman is pursuing a degree field primarily dominated by men.

Reilly also said she has been fortunate to have professors and mentors of both genders who are passionate about their students’ success.

“The amount of passion they bring really convinces me that we (women) belong here,” Reilly said.

Kylie Auerbach, 13, of Littleton, who says STEM subjects are a good fit for her, is counting on women such as Reilly and Puryer to lead the way.

“My parents always talked to me about the importance of STEM for the future,” Auerbach said. “Especially because they noticed I was interested in math and science more than any other subject.”

Auerbach’s best guess is that most of her classes at the STEM School in Highlands Ranch consist of about 60 percent boys.

“But,” she said, “the girls tend to push themselves more and gravitate toward the more accelerated courses.”

Simi Basu, a middle school computer science teacher and cyber security coach for kindergarten through 12th grade at the STEM School, notes how important it is to encourage girls’ interests in science and technology areas.

“Girls really do want to make a difference, and we need to give them a hand to show them how relevant and how fun STEM can be,” Basu said. “Both girls and boys can explore curiosity and make a change in the world.”

Basu came to the U.S. from India after earning a master’s in information technology and an MBA in business administration. For about 14 years, she worked in the corporate computer science field for IBM.

“We need to close that misconception that only men pursue those jobs,” Basu said. “If girls are engaged and motivated, it can help close the gap in the workforce.”

Support programs and role models are key

Mentors and and role models of females interested in STEM at a young age must take charge to keep the girls interested in these subjects as they grow older, educators and STEM professionals say.

Especially when they begin to think about their future career aspirations.

“Getting involved with a STEM career is different than sticking with a STEM career,” said Angela Fioretti, a former graduate research assistant at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Golden. She is now in Switzerland doing a postdoctoral fellowship where she works with electrical contact material for solar cells.

“It’s really important for younger women to see other women in senior positions in STEM careers so that they know it’s a viable path,” said Fioretti, who earned her PhD in material science from Mines in December 2016.

Beginning in about middle school, there are STEM-related clubs, extracurricular activities and academic programs that do just that. One of them in the Denver-area is Girls in STEM.

After about 20 years working as a licensed mechanical engineer, Wendy Merchant realized there were still more men than women entering STEM careers. So in 2014, she founded Girls in STEM, a local nonprofit that works to inspire middle and high school-aged girls to visualize and empower them to pursue STEM careers.

MORE: Girls in STEM competition held in Golden

Nowadays, big companies and colleges are looking at ways to attract and retain women to even the numbers in STEM professions, said Karen Ramon, director of operations and teacher adviser for Girls in STEM.

“They’re doing their part, but it needs to start earlier than college,” Ramon said. “It’s important for younger girls to know they have a voice, and that they’re not being judged for enjoying STEM subjects. Our goal is to expose them to everything. It’s all about the exposure.”

Kim Medina, director of admissions at Mines, agrees.

Through partnerships with local schools and community groups, Mines has implemented a number of outreach programs and initiatives to get younger girls more interested and involved with STEM subjects. Special events include Girls and Science at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, which took place March 3, and Girl Scouts Engineering Day.

At the University of Denver, annual Engineering Summer Camps and CodeART Workshops aim to get students excited about careers in engineering, mathematics and other science-related fields through hands-on activities. Both camps have specific weeks that they are offered exclusively to female middle and high school students.

Another successful program is Mines’ Discover-Explore-Create Technology (DECTech). It is led by female Mines students and designed to foster an interest in STEM among young girls through creative and interactive activities.

DECTech was founded in 2012 by Tracy Camp, a professor and the head of Mines’ Computer Science Department, in response to studies that show girls’ interest in science and engineering starts to decline the closer they get to middle school.

But Heather McKay, 33, defied the odds: She knew she wanted to pursue a career in aerospace since middle school.

“I just thought space was cool,” said McKay of Littleton, who pursued her dreams and graduated from Mines in 2006 with a degree in mechanical engineering and earned her master’s in systems engineering from Mines in 2007. She has worked at Lockheed Martin for about 10 years.

Being inspired by a relatable role model helped maintain her interest, McKay said.

McKay’s mother, Carol Angel, was an influencer in her life, she said. Angel was a single mom when she started at Lockheed Martin as an administrative assistant and over her 30-year career there, she worked her way up and retired as an engineer.

One day, Angel brought McKay to work with her for Lockheed Martin’s annual Young Minds at Work day, which is similar to a bring-your-child-to-work day. McKay, who was 10 at the time, got to meet the late Bruce McCandless, a former astronaut who in February 1984 became known for being the first person to fly untethered in space.

Now, McKay is the Orion launch abort system manager and works with a team of about 30 people. About 10 are women. At Lockheed Martin, McKay said, men and women have equal opportunity to contribute and succeed in the workplace.

“I get to be a part of a team that is accomplishing something that has never been done before. We’re trying to go to Mars,” she said. “We need everybody. It takes a whole team to accomplish such a big goal like exploring the universe.”

Similarly, eighth-grader Sophia Eakes’ interest in STEM started in fifth grade.

She enjoys the teamwork aspect of her STEM courses at Bell Middle School in Golden.

“I get to do stuff that I have never gotten to do in any other class,” Eakes said. “It’s so much fun and you realize you can do so many things.”

In the sixth grade, she started to learn some basic programming skills, and last year in seventh grade, she and her fellow students in an engineering class built a high-quality video game. This year, Eakes is programming robots.

And, she said, she plans on continuing her STEM education until she someday becomes a surgeon.

Eakes has been involved with Bell Middle School’s Girls in iSTEM Club for about two years. In February last year, she and her friend Maddie Rice won the Jefferson County Public Library’s Girls in STEM Competition. About 50 girls presented 18 projects at the competition, which was judged by Mines’ DECTech.

Eakes and Rice won for a bionic hand designed for the biomedical engineering field.

“I like solving problems and putting things together,” Eakes said. “I enjoy applying my knowledge to real-world problems that scientists and engineers are working on right now.”

Combating misperceptions

Despite all these efforts, a change isn’t going to happen overnight, Ramon said. Girls in STEM is still too new of a club to know its effectiveness, she notes.

And even though Mines is slightly above the national average for women attending the school to pursue a STEM degree, the number of females in freshman and transfer undergraduate classes has plateaued in the past 10 years, Medina said.

In 2016, about 28 percent were women, and in 2015, the number was about 31 percent, she said.

Part of the reason for the plateau at Mines may be that female students might have a misperception of what attending Mines would be like, Medina said. She added that females may think, because their male counterparts outnumber them, they would not have many as opportunities to get involved in extracurricular clubs or activities.

But it’s actually quite the opposite, Medina said.

Aside from its four sororities, Mines hosts an active Women in Science, Engineering and Mathematics office on campus and is home to the largest membership of Society of Women Engineers compared to any other campus in the nation, Medina said.

The school strongly encourages campus visits from female high schoolers to help combat any misperceptions, she added.

“We’re trying to get them on campus to show them what it’s really like,” she said. “Sometimes, it takes seeing it to believe it.”

One example is Girls Lead the Way at the Colorado School of Mines, which took place Feb. 10 this year. The event is an annual conference focused on women in STEM careers, put on in partnership with Mines and the Society of Women Engineers, during which, on average, more than 100 high school girls attend.

‘Diversity makes us richer’

Despite the work still to be done, there’s no doubt progress has been made, academics and professionals say.

When Barb Goodman was attending Mines in the 1980s, it was rare for a woman to pursue and enter a STEM career. She was often the only woman in her classes.

“Back then, if you liked science or math, you’d go to school to become a teacher,” Goodman said, “rather than a researcher or engineer.”

But as a single mother, she wanted a viable career with which to support her two children. She worked two jobs while in college — tutoring math and waiting tables in a restaurant. Often, she and her children did their homework together at the kitchen table. And when Goodman had academic assignments that required a computer, she would hire a babysitter so she could spend the late-night hours — sometimes until 3 a.m. or 4 a.m. — using the school’s computer lab.

“It was a lot of hard work for the four years that I was there,” Goodman remembered. “But I was passionate.”

Goodman graduated in 1984 with degrees in chemical engineering and petroleum refining engineering. Now in her 60s, Goodman is executive director of institutional planning, integration and development at NREL, where she has spent nearly 33 years.

As technology evolves, new thoughts and skillsets will become extremely important to solve future issues and challenges, Goodman said. And more women are needed to bring new and different perspectives.

“Diversity makes us richer,” she said, and that “will lead us to a better and brighter future.”

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