Culture change required to promote gender equality in STEM

Janhavi Nemawarkar

During competitive college admissions and internship application processes, Kelly Hall, a computer science and Plan II freshman, noticed a casual, pervasive sexism from her male peers.  Rather than attributing her accomplishments to her talent, male classmates would complain that she she was “so lucky” to be a woman in computer science because she “didn't need to work as hard or be as skilled.”

As reports of dismal diversity statistics have mounted, initiatives aimed at correcting the lack of women in STEM fields have surged. UT has many programs aimed at increasing women in STEM, from the Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day to the Women in Engineering Program. However, while these initiatives are important, they give off the unfortunate perception that the women who are being given more opportunity to succeed are somehow less qualified than their male peers.

“Men see that we are the minority, that we are being encouraged and pushed to achieve more in the field,” Hall said. “Rather than recognizing that these are opportunities that have always been available to them, they misconstrue these initiatives as giving an unfair advantage to women instead of leveling the playing field.”

These initiatives are still certainly necessary, but they have not done enough to change the STEM culture or improve enrollment. UT’s engineering diversity numbers in some fields remain abysmal. Undergraduate female enrollment in Electrical & Computer Engineering hovered around 15.4% as of Fall 2015, with enrollment figures for Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering close behind at 17.6% and 21.2%, respectively.

Moreover, the toxic culture that pervades the academic environment is not isolated. A study found that close to 30% of women who graduate with engineering degrees leave the field, citing the lack of opportunities for advancement and hostile workplaces.

The unwelcoming environment makes the field unattractive to women, which only reinforces the cycle, according to Arohi Ranade, a first-year biomedical engineering major and officer in Women in Biomedical Engineering.

“Its really hard to feel welcome in a place that you don’t see a lot of people like yourself,” Ranade said. “Coming into class and being one of the 4 girls there can be difficult.”

In order to retain women, the emphasis of these initiatives must not only be placed on increasing numbers of women entering the field, it must be improving this hostile culture. Altering programs in universities to engage men and emphasize the importance of differing perspectives in STEM can begin to improve this.

“Initiatives that bring men on board are very helpful,” Hall said. “This community can only truly become equal when we all recognize the benefits of having both men and women on equal footing in STEM.”

Women in STEM certainly are not going anywhere, and targeting programs at UT to change the hostile culture will trickle up into the workplace.

Nemawarkar is a Plan II freshman from Austin. Follow her on Twitter @janhavin97.