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Closing the Gender Gap

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UMD Encourages Women to Embrace Careers in STEM Fields


Jesslynn Poitra  
Sophomore Jesslynn Poitra, a biology major and American Indian Studies minor, is a member of the UMD American Indian Students in Science and Engineering Society.

According to a 2011 U.S. Department of Commerce study, "Women in STEM Fields," women hold a disproportionately low share of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) undergraduate degrees, particularly in engineering. The low number of women graduates translates into a low number of women in STEM careers. Although women fill nearly half of all jobs in the U.S. economy, they hold less than 25 percent of STEM jobs, even though over the past decade, women have increased their share of the workforce.

Faculty, administrators, and even students at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD) have been trying new tactics to increase the number of women and minorities interested in these fields.

“One of the biggest issues for UMD is finding women role models,” said Penny Morton, associate dean in the Swenson College of Science and Engineering. “We have been trying to hire more female faculty to help support female students who are looking at careers in STEM fields.” Senior electrical engineering student Kayla Wilson thinks adding women faculty is the right thing to do. “So far, I haven’t had one female professor,” she said. "That adds some extra stress to my classes."

Alaina Dodaro, a junior civil engineering student, says that in her upper division courses she is one of only four women in her class. “It feels a little intimidating to be surrounded by guys most of the time,” she said. Dodaro hints at a more subtle problem, societal disapproval. According to an article on engineering stereotypes in the September 2013 issue of Social Psychology of Education, a negative attitude about women who excel at engineering and mathematical inhibits women from majoring in engineering. A social stigma, the article says, "think nerd," is associated with engineering and it deters both males and females. Dodaro agrees with the concept, "When I talk to women or even men about my field of interest, I get that 'wide eyed' look from them. It makes me feel uncomfortable.”

Dodaro is sticking with civil engineering in spite of the low numbers of women in her classes and the negative stigma. "Right now there are more job opportunities for girls than guys," she said. "Times are changing and people are embracing the fact that girls can do what guys can do."

Morton sees the lack of role models as a major problem and is recruiting and hiring more women faculty. "Within the last couple of years, UMD has hired two tenure-track women faculty in mechanical engineering and last year we hired two tenure-track women faculty in civil engineering," Morton said. "It isn't enough yet, but we are pleased with the improvement."

Society of Women Engineers (SWE)
Wilson believes that when women support each other, success follows. That's why she is an active member of the UMD student organization, Society of Women Engineers (SWE). “We need to make the Society of Women Engineers more well known throughout campus," said Wilson. “Sharing information and experiences is really helpful. I wish I had gotten involved earlier.” The goal of SWE is to empower women to succeed and advance in the field of engineering, to be recognized for their life-changing contributions as engineers and leaders, and to establish engineering as a highly desirable career for women.

American Indian Students in Science and Engineering Society (AISES)
Sophomore Jesslynn Poitra, a biology major and American Indian Studies minor, says the UMD American Indian Students in Science and Engineering Society (AISES) does a good job of encouraging young Native students to choose majors in STEM fields. “There's a wide range of different science majors and minors in the group," she said. After graduating from UMD, Poitra plans to continue her schooling in a veterinary medicine program and become a veterinarian.

The goal of AISES is not only to support students but to support American Indian communities and families into the future. That is the underlying reason they provide young American Indian students with opportunities to explore science. That goal resonates with Poitra. Her family has provided her with inspiration. “My aunt and my mom are my biggest role models,” said Poitra. “My aunt is an occupational therapist and a very giving person. My mom has worked very hard and I admire her so much for that. She pushed me to work hard too and do well in school.”

Getting on Track
“First, we need to highlight the problem, then we need to listen,” said geology professor Vicki Hansen. Hansen received a grant for 2008-2012 from the National Science Foundation to examine the status of UMD women in STEM fields and to make recommendations for programs to support women faculty. "The research examined current and past retention and pointed to an extremely low number of women faculty in the STEM fields," she said. "UMD has lost a number of women with exceptional research programs and strong leadership skills." At UMD and around the country, women tenured faculty are underrepresented, but women instructors are overrepresented in STEM areas. "This distribution seems to communicate that women are more qualified for instructor positions than for tenure-track positions," Hansen said. "We need programs to assist all women faculty members in order to make UMD a place where women faculty apply, are hired, and flourish," she said.

Morton agrees. "UMD is working to change our culture, and that is really ambitious. We want to enhance the experience of women in STEM programs," she said. "Retaining female students and helping them succeed is really important. We want to do the same for our women faculty."

It is clear these changes won't happen overnight, but every positive step is making UMD a better academic environment for women.

Story by Erin Lehman with Cheryl Reitan, November, 2013.

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