Breaking the stigma: Women thrive in STEM

By Kristine Pascual and Jessica Silverio, March 19, 2024

At Cal Poly Pomona, where STEM education thrives, female students grapple with the reality of being outnumbered in a male-dominated field, shedding light on conversations about gender equality in academia.

According to data cited in Tableau, CPP’s College of Engineering  is comprised of 80% males and 20% females in the 2018-2019 school year. For this current school year the ratio remains unchanged. Female representation in a male-dominated field is crucial to change the perception that STEM roles are better suited for males.

Shavleen Singh, a computer science student, noted her experience as a woman navigating the STEM field and highlights the struggles she faced in a coding class dominated by male students where she felt sidelined and unsupported.

“When I took my first coding class, it was a lot of guys,” said Singh. “I think there were only two girls in my class. After my class, they had a study group and I would try and go study, but it was really hard to learn anything with my group because they were mostly guys. Either they take over how to code, so they start coding for you, or they don’t want to help you.”

Singh recalled the frustration she felt as this moment led to her failing her coding class, despite joining the study group, leaving her feeling lost and disheartened. However, her challenges didn’t end there.

During the next semester, Singh had her classes dropped due to her FAFSA not processing. She re-registered for new classes and didn’t receive the best professors, as one quizzed her on Java on the first day and she forgot how to do it.

“I turned in a blank quiz to the professor,” said Singh. “He told me I shouldn’t be in this major because I turned in a blank quiz.”

Singh’s professor’s discouraging words left her feeling demotivated and doubting her abilities the entire semester. Seeking help from her male classmates only added to her frustration, as they simply gave her the answers instead of helping her understand the material. According to Singh, they had already received the answers to study guides and assignments from friends who had previously taken the class and didn’t bother sharing the materials.

According to an article by CNN, the National Science Foundation estimates that 80% of jobs created in the next decade will require some form of math and science skills. Giving women a chance to prove themselves in fast-growing STEM sectors would allow them to succeed and feel represented, yet there remains a gender gap in STEM fields. Mentors are crucial for female STEM students as they provide support and guidance, helping them envision themselves succeeding in STEM roles and bridging the gap in exposure and participation.

(Left to right) Elena Lee and Maysa Barakat collaborate to construct the bridge for Steel Bridge. | Madison Rabina

Darcy Bolter, civil engineering student, expressed her initial nerves going into her classes in which she was one of few females. Being a female in these classes can mean putting in more effort than her male counterparts, she explained.

“Being a woman, you just have to push yourself a little bit harder because it is a mainly male environment,” Bolter said. “And if you’re not used to that, it can be very scary.”

Bolter described that oftentimes within group projects, women are almost always expected to take on the writing portion. Her male peers often take on the math portion without consultation, leading Bolter to deal with the most “annoying” part of the project: the essay.

Despite feeling underestimated by male peers, Bolter did not let those instances stop her from pursuing her dream career. With persistence and effort, Bolter was able to land her dream position at Kimley-Horn.

“It takes a lot of courage,” Bolter said. “You just have to be strong. Honestly, it sucks but unfortunately, it’s the way of the world right now but that’s how you can make it change. You just don’t let it bother you and stand up for yourself.”

For some, being a female in a male-dominated environment is an advantage. Construction engineering and management associate professor Ghada Gad viewed her gender as a strength.

As Gad entered undergraduate school at The American University in Cairo, she recalled a time in which she was featured in a photo on her university’s website to which her colleague pointed out that the reason she was featured was to check a diversity box.

“At the end of the day, the bigger picture is that (women) are there,” Gad said. “We are being presented and we are encouraging more females to join and become faculty or engineers in the workforce.”

Representation of women in STEM fields is necessary so girls can grow up inspired by the female professionals who paved the path.

“(Representation) is helping everyone out there see that this is possible,” Gad said. “Those younger females see that they can be faculty in engineering, or they can be VPs of big firms because that is possible.”

When Gad has female students, she takes them under her wing and mentors them in any way she can.

“Whenever I have students who are females in my classes, I make them understand how valuable they are,” Gad said. “That’s the very first thing I understood from the beginning, that I’m a very valuable commodity to this industry.”

Encouraging her female students, Gad stresses their value in the industry, emphasizing the importance of effort and perseverance.

“Always remember that you can do it,” Gad said. “The amount of effort you put into something, you will get rewarded for it. Even if you don’t get your worth in the moment, it’s going to happen in your life, in your career.”

Feature image courtesy of Madison Rabina. 

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