A couple of months ago, the Great Minds in STEM program invited several UTSA students to serve as STEM captains at Highlands High School. The one-day volunteering entailed motivating students who are interested in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) programs to continue with their aspirations.
The students were placed in teams and were completed several activities, including building a dome with straws and tape, creating a speed car using CDs, balloons, and rubber bands, and constructing a “futuristic” product from a conglomeration of materials that could serve a purpose one day, when the principle of holism would show that the whole is, indeed, greater than the sum of its parts.
Toward the end of the day, the students received awards ranging from electronics to gift cards to scholarship opportunities for best team, best ideas, best outcomes, etc. During the event, students from all socioeconomic backgrounds worked together; students from many ethnicities agreed on solutions; and both males and females cooperated and created a science-based project. Was this the case sixty years ago?
“Not really,” says Dr. Craig Jordan, Senior Associate Dean for the College of Sciences. “When I went to college in 1967, it was only a couple of years after females were allowed to go out at night and study in the library. In a sense, it was not that long ago we started treating females differently, and a lot of change has occurred fairly recently.”
Given the past history of sexism in the workplace and higher education— when the Equal pay act was signed in 1963 women were making just 58 cents for every dollar a man earned — it seems as if there is no better time than today to be born a female. Women are definitely making strides to close the gender gap in science degrees. The male-female divide in STEM degrees and careers is smaller than ever before as more and more hiring faculty boards are looking for ways to diversify their staff. In fact, the Cornell Institute for Women in Science recently found that tenure-track faculty in engineering, economics, biology, and psychology fields are twice as likely to hire female candidates than similarly qualified male candidates; however, women are still underrepresented in some STEM fields focusing on mathematics and computer science.
UTSA’s Fall 2014 profile shows that out of the 28,628 students enrolled, there were 14,091 females and 14,537 males. Thus, the university’s female to male ratio as a whole is nearly equal. When it comes to specific STEM programs, however, a gender gap is still evident in engineering majors. For example, Civil and Environmental Engineering has enrolled 122 females and 466 males; Electrical and Computer Engineering has enrolled 152 females and 868 males; Mechanical Engineering has enrolled 142 females and 1,069 males. There is a smaller gap in Biomedical Engineering, however, with an enrollment of 128 females next to 172 males.
The gender gap is smaller in some of the majors from the College of Sciences. Though males predominantly enroll in Computer Science – 793 males compared to 140 females – females tend to lead enrollment in Biology and Chemistry. There are 247 females compared to 221 males enrolled in Chemistry seeking degrees, and there are 1,661 females on the route to being biologists compared to 1,087 males.
Though more and more females are enrolling and being accepted in STEM programs, a question arises as to how many of the females that are enrolled in such programs continue on the STEM path.
“If you were to follow people in their careers, I think that is where you see females lagging behind,” said Jordan. “Look at full professors, deans, chairs; I think that is where disparity is seen, and I don’t know why.”
During the 1800’s, the justification for discrimination against women in higher education was that women would be wasting their “resources” for intellectual boost, thus diminishing these same “recourses” for other jobs, like child bearing.
“A hundred years ago, a young woman like me wasn’t afforded the same opportunities as today. Life placed different expectations on her, expectations of running a households and raising a family, not curing cancer or winning a Nobel Prize,” says Brianna Bal, a sophomore in the Facilitated Acceptance to Medical Education (FAME) Program. “Being a young woman in science, I want to continue on the path my predecessors paced and expand it even more. Why can’t I, as a young woman, raise a family AND be a physician?”
Change comes with evolving progress, and slowly, the US has grown out of the discriminatory mentality. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 made it illegal to discriminate against someone on the basis on sex, and when it comes to women specifically, the act also made it illegal to discriminate females because of pregnancy or childbirth. Also, the Equal Pay Act of 1963 made it illegal to pay men and women different wages if they perform equal tasks in the same workplace. These laws and many others have helped to narrow the gap.
“I think it would be interesting to see what the case would be if we did not have the laws we have today,” says Jordan. “It is very hard to discriminate against gender now.”
Today, academic institutions are not supposed to discriminate on gender for both student enrollment and faculty hiring purposes. UTSA, on its route to Tier 1, reflects gender equality. In fact, when glancing at the students in the FAME Program, there are noticeably more females than males preparing to become physicians.
“When applying for the FAME Program, I never once thought my gender would be something that would prevent my acceptance,” says Bal. “I think this really says something about how far we’ve come in our society.”
Great Minds in STEM offers many more opportunities similar to the event at Highlands High School that many students can benefit from. Giselle Castillo, a freshman Biology major, is a beneficiary of the program.
“Great Minds in STEM is funding a portion of my college education and for that, I am forever grateful,” says Castillo. The fact that they chose me, a girl, to receive the scholarship, solidifies the idea that girls are becoming more and more prominent in the science field.”