For centuries, women have fought for equality between the sexes. Inequality between women and men lurks in the shadows in seemingly small to egregiously large ways. From blue and pink baby shower themes to disparities in jobs, inequality exists in all aspects of society. Although society in the United States has made efforts to flatten the curve of inequality between the sexes, women today are still advocating for their rights in numerous ways.
Little girls are told to play with dolls and wear pink dresses. Whenever they do something that doesn’t fit this model, they’re told, “That’s for boys.” We tend to look up to people who look like us, and for many little girls, that means models, teachers, nurses and singers. Although those are amazing professions, we, as women, are shown that we cannot be the president of the United States, the surgeon that separates conjoined twins, a construction worker or a scientist.
The U.S. Department of Commerce released a 2017 report examining the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) workforce breakdown. 48% of women in the United States have jobs supporting the efforts to close the gap between the sexes, but women hold only 24% of jobs in the STEM field.
In light of the disparities and in celebration of last month being Women’s History Month, this mini-series aims to highlight and celebrate Albion professors and aspiring students in the STEM field.
How to Support and Advocate Women in STEM
Besides leading by example, there are multiple ways the college and its students can support and advocate for women interested in the STEM field.
Empowering women to pursue their passions is just the beginning to settling the conscious and unconscious bias between the sexes. A study conducted by the Harvard Business Review shows that men negotiate more often than women do and consider their interactions as potential negotiations.
The study also states that these issues stem from the way women are raised. Women are taught at an early age to put others’ needs before theirs, and many companies penalize women when they do ask for more. It is imperative to support women by teaching them at a young age to pursue their passions, prioritize their needs and ask for more, despite societal norms.
“I feel that women are still struggling to find their place in the STEM field, especially in the hard sciences. More and more women are becoming healthcare professionals with increasing ease, but I feel that women still face challenges that are far too great, considering it is 2020,” said Anna Crysler, a sophomore from Rockford, Mich. “I think that any woman is capable of anything she puts her fullest effort towards, even if that means fighting harder battles for the same outcome as her male counterparts.”
Introduce Students to Women Role Models in STEM
As stated above, young girls are taught to put others before themselves and to be caregivers. With this, a 2013 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center supports that women are more likely than men to experience family-related career interruptions.
As a result, women are more likely to pursue a career in humanities because of the flexibility for parental leave and similarities in their caregiving characteristics. However, careers in the STEM field have slowly begun to accommodate women’s needs, such as parental leave. This does not, however, imply that women are obligated to conform to societal expectations or that women are only meant to become mothers; it simply offers them more freedom to pursue whatever family life they desire while working in the STEM field.
Introducing students to role models in STEM will break the stigma and show young, aspiring women, and even other genders, that women, too, can wear lab coats, build innovative machines and create new algorithms. Female representation in the faculty who make up STEM in addition to other departments and bringing women representatives to speak could help the college introduce students to role models.
Build Relationships with Potential Mentors
With multiple women in the faculty, students have the opportunity to learn from established women in STEM.Aspiring women interested in STEM should contact a faculty member by email, which can be found on Albion College’s academic department website. If there is a lack of representation in these students’ specific interests, any of the faculty members are qualified and experienced enough to help guide them in the right direction.
“Belonging really determines whether you stick it out in a field that interests you,” said psychology researcher Amherst Nilanjana Dasgupta at the University of Massachusetts in an interview. “You feel a sense of camaraderie and comfort, or you start losing interest, confidence, and start thinking about leaving for another field.”
Speaking with a woman faculty member can highly motivate other women to pursue their dreams, regardless of the field.
“There is definitely a lot of mental stress that I encounter being a STEM student,” said Hannah Woods,a junior from Macomb, Mich. “The work can get very difficult and can also be piled on from different professors.”
Crysler said that pursuing a degree in STEM can be time-consuming and overwhelming. Haley McQuown, a sophomore from Albion, Mich., agrees.
Building mentorship relationships with women who have accomplished their goals can help young women to accomplish theirs in a stress provoking field.
“I’ve been blessed with really incredible mentors and advisors, including several female scientists, including Drs. Tammy Jechura, Heather Caldwell, and my current mentor Dr. Hanne Hoffmann at MSU, that have been really instrumental in not only providing guidance during my education and career thus far, but also have served as excellent role models,” said Alex Yaw (‘14).
Yaw also had a male PhD co-advisor, Dr. Dave Glass, who she said was instrumental in her success.
Get Involved in STEM Programs or Start One
At Albion, students have the opportunity to apply to the Student Research Partnership (SRP) program, FURSCA, Center for Sustainability and the Environment (CSE), Global Medical Brigades, Delta Sigma Pi, geology Club, astronomy club, engineering club and many more clubs. Undergraduate students can also apply to Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU), AMGEN scholars program, SURF programs and other STEM opportunities.
“During my junior and senior year at Albion, I was really involved with the transition of Global Medical Brigades club to Global Brigades,” said Yaw. “I knew research was something that, long term, I was interested in doing, but actually wanted to do volunteer work, like the Peace Corp.”
Experiencing different opportunities can help fellow aspiring students decide on they want to contribute to the STEM field.
Promote STEM on Social Media
Checking social media has become a norm in society, whether it is to check the news for updates on a world pandemic or a want to laugh at a video of a chocolate covered baby. Technology will only advance from here on out, and what better way to use social media than to inspire young women to pursue a career in STEM.
Social media can be very powerful in the way that it is now a form of communication, a source of information and an identity. Communities are even formed through social media and the messages shown can be positive or they can be negative. Social media gives users the option to control what is and is not posted and how we decide to use it.
Using social media as an outlet to promote women in STEM can give young aspiring women the motivation they need and a sense of normalcy that women are in STEM and not “just for boys.” Posting inspiring quotes, displaying the failures and successes in STEM journeys, posting pictures can empower these young women that they too can experience a life in STEM and many other things such as running, knitting, journaling, coaching, music and more.
Advice to Aspiring STEM Students
Some of the best advice I have comes from my dad. He would say ‘don’t make things easy for them.’ What he meant was that you should always apply for things, ask for opportunities, submit papers, even if you are afraid you’re not good enough – and force the people making the decisions to tell you no. You have to be okay with rejection in this business, and in life, but it’s something that you can practice and get better at.
I often get feedback from people that they can tell I am passionate about what I do, and so another piece of advice is to find a way to make a living that is also something you can be excited about.
– Abigail Cahill
Trust yourself and believe in yourself. Don’t listen to the naysayers and distance yourself from them. Find a group of similarly talented and similarly driven women and support each other. I have found I am so thankful that I have found my group at Albion College. They’ve made this job so much easier.
And don’t look at challenges as reasons to give up. Look at them as opportunities to grow and work harder. Early on, I learned to ignore people telling me that I couldn’t or shouldn’t or maybe that wasn’t very lady-like. I took it as a challenge to prove them wrong.
And some days, I like to show up to “science” in heels and fancy dresses just to show that it can be done.
– Vanessa McCaffrey
Find something that you love and do it. Create your own path. Be fearless in whatever you do! Challenge yourself. Ask lots of questions.
– Julie Cousins
Finding the right fit or finding “your people” is really key. The vastly overwhelming people in science are really supportive and helpful, but, like any field, you come across people aren’t the easiest to work with, and having great friends and mentors is essential. Finding work that you’re passionate about, that makes you excited to come in at 3 a.m. to collect samples or data you don’t hate staring at for multiple days straight to try to understand, makes a world of difference. I think you don’t have to love every step of the process, it helps if you like most of the steps, but if you’re passionate about the question, it makes finding answers so rewarding.
Students, don’t be afraid to reach out for help. Don’t be afraid to ask for what you want. Don’t be afraid to break the stigma. Ask questions in and out of the classroom. Set yourself up for success by being okay to prioritize yourself for once.
– Alex Yaw