Fabian DeSoto, Paisano
At UTSA in 2014, female students represented 17.4 percent of the 3,089 students enrolled in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) fields. While the ratio of male to female students can be influenced by a number of factors, such as student interest and enrollment, the empirically observed gender gap raises concerns.
Olivia Ybarra, a recent UTSA graduate with a B.S. in environmental science and a minor in biology, has often seen the effects of this gap first hand.
“Being a female minority and studying a subject that is often under appreciated and misinterpreted, especially in Texas, it can seem like the odds are stacked against you,” she said.
Ybarra stated she has often encountered sexist remarks said casually in her study groups and classes and attributes this to the gap between men and women enrolled in STEM.
“I had female classmates, especially engineering majors where females are overwhelmingly outnumbered, who have been in study groups with only male students when the conversation would suddenly drift to misogynistic comments about the women nearby.”
Although female students today do receive a lot of support, these occurrences are not uncommon.
Barbara Kennedy is the president of the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) at UTSA, and a civil engineering major. Although the society’s purpose is to highlight the contributions of women in the engineering program, she notes the difference in treatment between the sexes in the area of wardrobe.
“I have personally been to half a dozen workshops that focus on what not to wear to career-related events. It took me every one of those experiences before I asked myself, ‘Do men have these workshops?’ Of course they don’t.” Kennedy believes the workshops should “spend more time talking about how to be the best version of yourself (even if that self is a high-heels wearing, red-lipstick-toting feminista).”
Ybarra describes an example of sexism professors faced by STEM students. Before her 8 a.m. class, a professor in the biology department began the class by giving his personal outlook on marriage.
“He decided he wanted to share his ideas of marriage and the roles of a wife. His views about his wife were demeaning and belittled her integrity. While I do respect other’s opinions, I think it was inappropriate to have that discussion, especially in a class that did not warrant such dialogue,” Ybarra said.
Dean of the College of Engineering Dr. JoAnn Browning says that the key to reducing these types of comments and actions in her field are strong female role models.
“I feel that women need to be continuously educated and encouraged to consider careers in STEM fields. They share the same interest and talent as men to be successful in these careers, but they may not be able to visualize themselves succeeding without the availability of a strong female role model,” Browning said.
Senior lecturer at UTSA for the Environmental Sciences Dr. Karen Engates points to her doctoral mentor as a major influence in her Teaching style. Her mentor (a woman) understood the responsibilities she faced and pushed her in a way no one else could. Her mentor, she says, “understood the need for balance of research, course work, outside interests and obligations, and sanity.” Though Dr. Engates respected her male mentors as well, it was the female mentor that most pushed her to new heights and encouraged her the most.
Another factor that might explain the low numbers of women in the STEM fields is the work-life balance women struggle with. Associate Professor of Research, Dr. Afamia Elnakat says, “I believe we can do it all. I think if you ask my daughter, she is very proud of me and engaged in what I do. Yes, I have failed when it comes to being engaged with her in school events such as carving pumpkins for Halloween, but because she is engaged in my work. She thinks her mom is a super hero saving the world one environmental source at a time.”
Ybarra reminds women in the STEM fields to look to role models such as Dr. Elnakat and Dr. Engates, “My advice to future female scientists and engineers is to never feel undervalued and to look at your female professors as models of success in STEM fields… It was very empowering to see these extremely accomplished women take on roles of mother, wife, scientist, and teacher and to excel in a traditionally male-dominated field.”
Dr. Browning’s department tries to ensure that all students feel included through programs such as SWE (Society of Women Engineers), women specific workshops, programs such as the Women’s Professional Advancement and Synergy Academy (WPASA), UT System initiatives such as the UT System Women Senior Leaders Network, and others. She emphasizes the importance of encouraging these students.
“It is not just a preference that I am stating, but a need, for in a country where there is a deficit of STEM professionals, we must actively recruit and educate a talent pool that includes both genders.”
Otilia Webb, environmental science senior and president of the Women in STEM organization on campus feels that despite the afore mentioned instances UTSA does well at including female scientists.
“I think that my peers respect that I am just as smart as any male student. I feel that I am empowered by the faculty to do my best in college and then after I graduate. I think that has to be my favorite part about UTSA and especially the ES Department. I am so grateful to be in a university that has given me this chance.”
Despite disparity in numbers, Dr. Elkanat encourages young women to continue and has one thing to say about success: “Go for it…have fun. Be like me! I wouldn’t do it any other way.”