Women defy gender disproportions in STEM fields

Undergraduate microbiology junior Amy Olyei (left) and Assistant Professor Aleksandra Sikora (right) working in their respective labs. Women have been historically underrepresented in STEM fields.

Melinda Myers, News Contributor

Organizations, sororities support women’s success in STEM work.

Women in previous years were not allowed in or near STEM areas, according to Professor Kryn Freehling-Burton, an OSU instructor in the Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies. Freehling-Burton teaches many courses involving WGSS topics, including the class Gender and Science. 

“Women have historically been underrepresented or not represented at all since modern science began,” Freehling-Burton said. “And in many cases, women were deliberately left out of imaginings for the development of universities as we know them today.”

Percentages of women at various tiers of employment have been calculated by the Office of Institutional Research, according to Director Salvador Castillo. The percentages, however, should be observed with a critical eye, as professional responsibilities may encompass more than one title, according to Castillo. However, tenured professors are a solid gauge, being established, long-term OSU faculty. 

“The percentages are better now in regards to engineering faculty. Ten years ago or so that number would be 10 to 12 percent,” Castillo said. “So there is progress. It’s just very slow. The trends we see kind of match what’s been nationally going on and historically too.”

According to Freehling-Burton, the school of thought behind feminist science began in the later 1900s.

“It was in the ‘60s and ‘70s when feminists and scientists started asking these overt questions on kind of a global scale,” Freehling-Burton said. “We started asking questions about why the system is excluding women in these ways. And so feminist science studies formally came into being.”

The area of feminist science studies has created opportunities for those who were not recognized or seen, according to Freehling-Burton. Engineering social change starts with an acknowledgement of the women whose work was not publicized. 

“Okay, we’re going look at these photographs of the women of the Harvard Observatory, we’re going to figure out who these women are. Because they weren’t named in the photograph. And Pickering, all the guys were named. And they were publishing, they were publishing all those women’s work,” Freehling-Burton said. “Henrietta Leavitt, she figured out how to measure the distance between stars while she was caring for her dying father and working off of glass plates.” 

Freehling-Burton referenced Dr. Londa Schiebinger, a Stanford-based researcher nationally recognized for her work on gender and science, according to the Stanford history department webpage. Schiebinger approaches social change through a series of steps. 

“The first is how do we fix the number of women in STEM if the institutions and the systems have not been created in those ways, then second, we have got to fix the institutions, we have to fix the structures,” Freehling-Burton said. “We have to talk about tenure clocks and we have to talk about parental leave. We have to talk about elder care, we have to talk about the things a society expects more from a woman than a man. We have to talk about pay equity, we have to talk about equity in lab start-up funding.” 

According to Freehling-Burton, after identifying and acknowledging inequality, there needs to be a cultural shift in mindset. 

“And then the third level is much more epistemological, thinking, ‘Okay, well we can take care of those things but at the same time we should be attending to the knowledge,’” Freehling-Burton said. “So how do we fix the knowledge? How do we address the questions that haven’t been asked because certain people have not been at the table or in the laboratory?”  

Social groups such as sororities can act as safe havens for women in STEM majors, according to Aryn Thomas, the president of Sigma Delta Omega, a sorority focused on women in STEM fields. 

According to Thomas, the sorority participates with programs such as Advocates for Women in Science, Engineering and Math. AWSEM is a club dedicated to giving young girls an opportunity for hands-on STEM experience while interacting and learning from older women in various STEM fields, according to their OSU webpage. 

“We’re seeing a really great thing with the programs we fund. Like AWSEM, we have a member now in our sorority who also participated in that when she was young,” Thomas said. “So I think we’re starting to see the payoff of what we do and there’s something rewarding about that.”

SDO serves as a platform to lift and support women’s voices in STEM, according to Thomas.

“Being a part of Sigma Delta Omega, I’m able to have that voice for younger women to encourage them to pursue science,” Thomas said. “Participating with AWSEM and other science-related activities like Discovering the Scientist Within, working with younger ones to encourage and to inspire them to not be put down by some of those negative comments that come out.”

As the STEM disciplines are far-reaching and various, Sanjana Saravanan, the secretary for SDO, was fortunate enough to not face adversity or barriers to her access.

“I’m also in a very male-dominated field, I’m studying bioengineering so just looking around and seeing the number of men compared to women, it can be a little discouraging. But I’ve been really fortunate to be in an environment where being a woman in STEM is an empowering thing,” Saravanan said. “Ever since high school and college, I’ve been encouraged to study what I want and to be in the sciences. I think I’m pretty lucky in that I haven’t had a negative experience being in this field.” 

According to Thomas, transparency and communication may be two practices to employ when engaging in conflicting conversations about gender representation in STEM. 

“I think just being able to have that open conversation. Like why do you feel like that is true, or why are you saying those sort of things? I think when you make somebody put it into perspective of, ‘Why am I saying this?’ then they kind of think more and are like, ‘Actually, I don’t know,’ because it’s so kind of ingrained in culture,” Thomas said. “I think that is something important, to kind of take a step back and have more of a bird’s eye view of, ‘Is it actually how I feel or is it something I’ve been told to say?’ So I think just having that introspection and look inside helps.”

Additionally, Thomas adds that inclusivity and awareness are necessary when supporting others. 

“You have to be able to listen before anything. You have to stop talking in order to hear others. So it’s kind of enabling others to speak and seeing where those microphones aren’t being used,” Thomas said. “You have to take the responsibility on yourself and look at your surroundings and think, ‘Is it just me who’s here and sharing my voice, or are we actually including the rest of our community?’ It’s much easier to say than do, obviously.” 

According to Freehling-Burton, the struggles seen with women’s experiences in STEM are wrapped up in avenues of intersectionality. At the junction where race, sexuality and gender expression meet lies a necessary discussion about how they impact STEM studies. 

“You know faculty and researchers of color have similar kinds of experiences with pay equity and leave and being in a culture that was designed not only without those people in mind as researchers, but using those bodies as subjects of research—often without consent and often in really horrific kinds of ways,” Freehling-Burton said. “And there have always been LGBT researchers and faculty, but how safe it is to be out or how safe it is to talk about things outside of the lab can really complicate those experiences in STEM.” 

Freehling-Burton requires students in her gender and science class to read thought pieces about how gender and race can shift understanding of the universe.

“So in that sense, we are taking ideas about race and gender into something that is clearly not racialized, like photons, for instance,” Freehling-Burton said. “But funding gets decided based on somebody’s track record, we know that men are more likely to get funding, we know that white people are more likely to get funding. It impacts the kinds of questions that get prioritized.”

As for future female students looking to enroll in STEM fields at OSU, they may not find the same adversities as women in previous time periods, according to Saravanan. 

“It’s definitely progressing in the right direction. I think they are going to come in and see the right things. They’re not going to come in with all this negative energy around their choice of study,” Saravanan said. “We’re definitely paving a better path for them, so they’re going to come in with this organization already in full bloom and be like, ‘There is a place for me to study STEM at this university.’”

Collaboration between social and physical sciences could provide more opportunities for those underrepresented in the STEM community, according to Freehling-Burton. 

“I think that that cross-disciplinary work has some potential for some reimaginings. How do social scientists and field scientists work together and reimagine it all,” Freehling-Burton said. “And I think that scientists have got really important things to share with social scientists, and I think social scientists have really good things to share in that direction.”

Programs aimed at multidisciplinary STEM create a space for ideas to be heard, and have a chance of creating big changes, according to Freehling-Burton.

“There’s these initiatives and these ideas and we’ve already started thinking about these positions on campus. So now we’re thinking across the college level arts and the sciences and what that may look like. I think it has incredible potential,” Freehling-Burton said. “It’s so new, these ways of radically thinking across those lines, not just a botanist teaching a class in WGSS or me teaching a general science class. But to really think about larger programs. I think there’s lot of a potential there.”

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