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A January 2018 study by the nonprofit Pew Research Center found that 50 percent of women in STEM experienced discrimination in the workplace versus 41 percent of women in non-STEM jobs and 19 percent of men in STEM. Photo by Mark Stahl

Women in STEM

Here's how female STEM students deal with gender-based challenges and how alums in the workforce are making it work.

April 24, 2018

By Amanda Miller

The conversation about women in STEM is changing.

Reducing the gap between women and men working in science, technology, engineering and math is no longer understood to be just a matter of getting girls interested in science at a young age.

Recent research shows there’s more to it – a much harsher reality. Consider this: U.S. employment in STEM is up 79 percent since 1990, to 17.3 million, yet the STEM sector that grew the most, computer occupations, experienced a decline in its representation of women. About half of women in mostly male workplaces – the case for about a fifth of women in STEM – say being a woman has gotten in the way of their careers.

Just published in January, the study by the nonprofit Pew Research Center found that 50 percent of women in STEM experienced discrimination in the workplace versus 41 percent of women in non-STEM jobs and 19 percent of men in STEM.

Meanwhile, female STEM grads from MSU Denver are out there in the workforce. This is what they’ve done and what the University is doing.A student peers through a microscope in Professor Robert Hancock's parasitology course. Photo by Jessica Taves

Making the job connection

Growing up in the new millennium and attending the all-girls St. Mary’s Academy, Rubi Solis had no idea about any issues with women working in STEM.

“It definitely wasn’t on my radar,” says the electronic engineer who graduated last year. She had just always assumed she would do something scientific.

When she started taking engineering classes, the situation clarified. She was usually the only female student. Now she’s one of three women in her group of a few dozen engineers at Lockheed Martin.

That scenario is by no means unusual. Women in the Pew survey accounted for only 14 percent of engineers.

“I guess college kind of prepared me for that,” Solis says.

College also helped connect her with the job working on satellite parts. She was one of six students in her year accepted into a co-op program at Lockheed Martin Space Systems Co., working half-time for credit and taking a reduced course load.

She was part of the second cohort of students brought on board through the partnership, which teaches students techniques in3-D printing, electronics, composite development and even spacecraft testing.

The right fit for a family

Amber Graham has felt at times that being a mom was an impediment to being perceived professionally, especially when she was pregnant. She’s been a professional research assistant since graduating in 2013 with her bachelor’s in chemistry and biology.

The former massage therapist is now a clinical research coordinator at Rocky Mountain Cancer Centers, where she feels supported and optimistic.

But in an earlier job, she wasn’t taken seriously.

“Toward the end, it got better because I was able to present data,” she says. In the life sciences, data can take time to mature.

Even in workplaces where the gender breakdown is equal, or women are in the majority, more than half of women in the Pew study still said they feel like they constantly have to prove themselves.

Graham is thankful for her new position.

“I get to work in an environment that really fosters my career and encourages me to be a good parent,” she says.

She’s now been readmitted to MSU Denver because she hopes to earn a nursing license so she can be more useful around the research patients.

Changing mindsets

Sophia Mahmood didn’t have much career direction when she started college, though her family is well-educated.

“I like a lot of things theoretically,” she laughs.

Originally from Jordan, she moved to the U.S. as a teen. After trying some different majors, she finally found the culture to her liking in MSU Denver’s Department of Mathematical and Computer Sciences.

When she graduated with her bachelor’s in general mathematics in 2015, her most recent experience was as a server at a pizzeria, yet she landed the first job she applied to as a quantitative analyst.

Wondering how that’s possible?

That could be part of the problem.

“I think that as women, we tend to try to give reasons for good things that happen,” Mahmood says.

MSU Denver’s Sophia Cherry, Ph.D., calls it “impostor syndrome.” For the past two years, Cherry has led the University’s Women in STEM conference in the fall, and this feeling is “what the students always seem to come back to,” she says.

It’s the feeling that you don’t really belong; that you must have gotten lucky; that you’ll eventually be exposed.

Mahmood is settling into a new job as senior energy modeler at Energy Ventures Analysis in Arlington, Virginia, where she forecasts energy supply and demand from partial data. It’s much like what she did at her first job, except now she gets to build the workflow from the ground up.

“It’s definitely challenging to build infrastructure where it did not exist,” she says. “It’s also a great opportunity to do things right in the first place.”

Three female students work on a group assignment in a general biology lab. Photo by Mark Woolcott

Sticking with it

A middle school teacher told Wendy Abshire it was OK that she wasn’t good at math because she was a girl.

If that teacher had helped her through a rough spot instead – if her skills had improved?

“I’d probably have my Ph.D.,” she says.

A 1985 MSU Denver alum with a bachelor’s in meteorology, she was fortunate to have been a student assistant at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, known as NCAR, throughout her years as an undergrad. There, she took part in real research that actually changed the world – working with data that revealed the existence of “microbursts,” or mini-reverse-tornadoes, and being a part of the team that successfully argued for the widespread use of Doppler radar.

After earning her master’s in atmospheric science from the University of Wyoming, she went to work for the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, NCAR’s parent organization, to produce training content for scientists. As technology advanced from laser discs to webcasting over the course of 26 years, Abshire advanced to program managerbefore deciding she was ready for a change. In 2016, she accepted the job of education program director at the American Meteorological Society.

She acknowledges that she experienced discrimination in her field because she was a woman, and she saw other women struggle with it as well – “whether it was microaggressions, blatant sexual harassment or glass ceilings.” Some of those women made the decision to “step away.”

“It’s a conversation that’s been part of my entire career,” Abshire says.

Types of discrimination in the survey include earning less than a woman or man doing the same job (the most frequent); being treated as if not competent; experiencing repeated, small slights at work; receiving less support from senior leaders than a woman or man doing the same job; feeling isolated in the workplace; being passed over for the most important assignments; and being denied a promotion (the least frequent).

Abshire attributes her success to perseverance and loving her job: “It requires a certain tenacity to be so dedicated to your dream that you just keep going. … For me it was about becoming a meteorologist and having a family.”

Now she splits her time between Washington, D.C., Denver and elsewhere on AMS-related travel.

She’s OK with not having a Ph.D.

“I think I’m exactly where I would’ve wanted to be anyway,” she says. “I just had to press on.”

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