2014 Miss America pageant winner Nina Davuluri flashes an unreserved smile during her keynote speech at DCCC’s STEM Career Night on Feb 12. Davuluri earned her bachelor’s degree in brain, behavior and cognitive science; only 27 percent of STEM degrees are awarded to females.
2014 Miss America pageant winner Nina Davuluri, 24, gave one of many explanations for the root cause of the gender gap in Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) careers in a keynote speech to a crowd of nearly 200 students, parents and school officials Feb. 12 in the Large Auditorium at Delaware County Community College.
“I think the large issue is that girls, young girls in particularly, are just more preoccupied with being popular and cool than actually focusing on their education,” said Davuluri, who earned her B.A. in cognitive science and brain studies from the University of Michigan in 2011 and will resume her education in neuroscience next year.
Davuluri’s speech kicked off STEM Career Night and was followed by a series of speeches by STEM students, Stephanie Edwards, Shannon Miles, and Indi Dagoul who formed a panel to answer questions about their experiences, motivations and future plans.
While Davuluri’s comments are still up for debate, many are searching for answers and trying to build solutions for the underrepresentation of women in STEM fields.
“It really doesn’t have to be this way,” Edwards, a chemical engineering major, said. “Women can do it and take on more influential roles.”
Edwards decided to champion Women in STEM and founded the group last year when she realized that the majority of her classmates were male.
“It’s disappointing only because there are so many women who have the aptitude to study STEM fields and they are shied away from it,” Edwards said about the gender gap. “That’s why I created the club; it’s a small part of a big picture, but it’s still making an impact in the community.”
According to the U.S. Department of Commerce Economics and Statistics Administration, women make up 48 percent of the nationwide workforce, but only 24 percent of STEM workers are women. Women make of 14 percent of the gap in engineering.
“I think females are intimidated by that type of work,” said 20-year-old Alexandria Gregory, a physical therapist who is studying health sciences. “It’s always been seen as a male occupation.”
Yanling Choi, an international engineering major from China, can also relate. “Women have the stereotype that they don’t do well in science,” Choi said. “I am taking Physics now and out of a whole class of about 30 students, only five are female.”
Many other women studying in STEM fields have had similar experiences.
“Since I have been in the STEM field, which has pretty much been my whole life, I have been one of the few women,” said Jill Spelina, an assistant professor of mathematics at DCCC.
Spelina, who teaches introductory algebra and a higher level calculus class, explained that the male to female ratio in her algebra classes are fairly even, but in calculus the girls are vastly outnumbered, reminiscent of when she herself was a student of mathematics.
“I’ve been in classes where I was the only woman,” Spelina said.
This experience is rarer than ever before as the number of women receiving degrees in STEM disciplines is growing, according to the Association of American Universities Data Exchange (AAUDE).
Miss America Nina Davuluri
Courtesy of DCCC Public Relations
The AAUDE reported that the number of women receiving bachelor’s degrees in STEM fields has increased 27 percent, from 70,537 in 2004 to 89,817 in 2010, making up 40 percent of STEM degrees granted that year. The number of women who received doctorate degrees nearly doubled from 5,734 to 9,358.
Even so, women with STEM degrees are less likely to work in a STEM occupation, according to the US Department of Commerce. It was reported that out of 2.5 million college-educated female workers with degrees in STEM, only 26 percent are employed in STEM occupations, compared to 40 percent of males with the same qualifications.
Thirty-three percent of college-educated women with STEM degrees enter healthcare or education professions.
“Once they get into the job, they don’t get the promotions, they get the office without windows, they get the worst classrooms,” said Sandra Devenny, assistant professor of biology and academic advisor for the Women in STEM club.
“There is this really subtle discrimination against them,” Devenny said. “It’s that type of atmosphere that makes them want to leave the workforce.”
Devenny worked in STEM occupations for seven years, two as a research associate and five as a development scientist, before committing to being an educator.
“In elementary school and even into middle school, girls are really just as interested as boys in the STEM sciences,” Devenny said. “Something happens when they reach high school and they decide that’s not what they are going to do when they go to college.”
While many say progress is being made on the matter, the idea of Women in STEM careers hasn’t been an easy notion to embrace.
“Someone defaced a poster, replacing ‘STEM’ with ‘kitchen’, so it read ‘Women in the kitchen.’” Edwards said. “It didn’t really bother me though because I knew that’s what we were going up against.”
Despite negative feedback, Edwards said she is optimistic and for good reason.
While women are comparatively underrepresented in STEM fields, the number of STEM degrees awarded to women has been climbing slowly but consistently, according to AAUDE reports.
Studies show that more women are graduating with doctorates in STEM now than ever before; 36.6 percent of STEM doctorate degrees were awarded to women in 2010, up from 31.2 percent in 2003.
In the 1940’s, Howard Miller created the “We Can Do It!” poster that has become popularized in the 1980’s as a symbol of progressive movements in the advancement of gender diversity in the workplace. For some, Edwards’s efforts evoke the sentiments of the iconic slogan.
“We can do it,” Edwards added. “We can do more.”