More women than men in life sciences but less in STEM
DANBURY — When she was growing up, Brittany Schappach received little encouragement about becoming a scientist. Even after she began working on a biology degree, people would ask her why she wanted to do something so hard.
But now, as a senior at Western Connecticut State University, she has found support from her female advisers, and has just presented at a conference with fellow senior Sandra Zapata-Ramirez, on their work related to ticks.
“It was a great opportunity to find that scientific support,” said Schappach, who plans to pursue a master’s degree in medical entomology and along with research opportunities.
Schappach and Zapata-Ramirez are two of 120 women enrolled in WCSU’s biology program, where female students account for about 58 percent of the total.
But while women represent the majority of students in life sciences, they are still underrepresented in most of the other STEM fields: science, technology, engineering and mathematics. This year at WCSU, women account for just 36.5 percent of those enrolled in STEM programs.
The situation at WCSU reflects the numbers across the country, which explains why efforts are being made in the private and public sectors to encourage girls to pursue STEM subjects and to seek careers in the STEM fields.
National breakdown of women earning STEM degrees
Biological and biomedical sciences: 59 percent of bachelor’s, 57.3 percent of master’s, 53.3 percent of doctorates
Mathematics and statistics: 43 percent of bachelor’s, 40.6 percent of master’s, 27.9 percent of doctorates
Physical sciences and science technologies: 38.5 percent of bachelor’s degrees, 37.5 percent of master’s and 34.3 percent of doctorates
Engineering and engineering technologies: 18.7 percent of bachelor’s degrees, 25.2 percent of master’s degrees and 23.3 percent of doctorates
Computer and information sciences and support services: 18 percent of bachelor’s degrees, 30.4 percent of master’s degrees and 22.5 percent of doctorates
Nationally, 59 percent of bachelor’s degrees in biological and biomedical sciences were earned by women, according to data released in 2016 by the National Center for Education Statistics. But women accounted for just 35.1 percent of bachelor’s degrees awarded in all STEM majors taken together.
At the University of Connecticut, however, women make up about 49 percent of STEM majors, which include nearly 50 different disciplines ranging from horticulture to statistics to computer engineering.
The disparity is likely the result of cultural influences rather than aptitude. According to a global study published last month by the Association for Psychological Science, girls perform as well as or better than boys in science in two-thirds of the 67 countries reviewed. The study also concluded that many more girls are capable of college-level success in STEM fields than actually enter them.
Interestingly, women were more likely to pursue STEM degrees and careers in countries with greater gender inequity, because higher-paying STEM jobs promise greater financial freedom. But in countries such as the U.S., where inequities are less evident, women can pursue their interests, which generally aren’t STEM-oriented, the APS study said.
For Zapata-Ramirez, who moved to Bethel from Peru when she was 10, becoming a scientist was always a goal. But as a student learning English, she got little encouragement from her high school teachers
She was motivated instead by her mother, who had earned a psychiatry degree in Peru.
“She said I need to do something and rise above and be better,” Zapata-Ramirez said.
She also got encouragement from her professors at WCSU, including Neeta Connally and Rayda Krell, who oversee the university’s Tickborne Disease Prevention Lab.
Connally and Krell both said the dearth of women in STEM fields results partly from the lack of female mentors — roles they are now determined to play.
“Our goal is to really encourage their interests so they can pursue what they like,” Connally said.
Today at WCSU, six of 11 biology professors are women; five of the last six hires were women.
Stereotypes also play a role in steering women away from STEM subjects, especially in a field like entomology, with its focus on insects.
“People think girls don’t like bugs, but they’re really interesting creatures,” Connally said. “We’re trying to break the mold.”
Connally said women often start college with plans to go into nursing or other health-related professions, but find themselves intrigued by other scientific fields in their classes.
On the engineering side, however, high school girls are seldom told about the opportunities available to them, which helps account for the disparity between men and women in the field, said Mary Bidwell, associate dean of the Advanced Manufacturing Technology Center at Asnuntuck Community College in Enfield.
But that might be changing, partly owing the college’s outreach to women, she said.
The school has always attracted women to the welding and fabrication programs, but she’s now seeing more female applicants to programs like electromechanical engineering and computerized numerical control machining, which can be used as a stepping stone to an engineering degree. About 10 percent of enrollees in these programs are women.
She said female graduates usually are hired quickly, showing the growing demand for women in the field.
“They’re all out there doing well and growing with the companies,” Bidwell said. “It’s a very male-dominated environment, but the diversity is increasing in the manufacturing field.”
While the number of undergraduates in STEM subjects is increasing, there is still a large disparity for women entering these fields professionally.
Women accounted for about 47 percent of the national workforce in 2015, but just 24 percent of the 8.6 million STEM jobs, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. Women accounted for more than half of the college-educated workforce, but just 25 percent of college-educated STEM workers.
Only 23 percent of women with STEM degrees, or 800,000 women, actually work in STEM fields. According to the Commerce Department report, women with STEM degrees are more likely to work in education or health care than in STEM occupations.
Engineering is the most popular STEM field of study for working men, who outnumber women in the field by a 2-1 ratio. Computer science, which had roughly equal shares of men and women in 2009, has become far more male-dominated over the past six years, with men more than twice as likely as women to earn computer degrees, according to the report.