Large underrepresentation of women can lead to disinterest and frustration with STEM subjects.Image By: Max Homstad
“Being underrepresented in your major can impact you in a lot of ways.”
While UW-Madison has awarded women bachelor’s degrees for 150 years, the patriarchal history of education has ripple effects to this day, particularly in the hard sciences and maths.
It comes as no surprise to anyone that men are overrepresented in STEM fields. And unfortunately, UW-Madison isn’t a break from this norm.
The College of Engineering’s undergraduate student body is only 25 percent female, and this representation diminishes further as the college is broken down into majors — only 14.4 percent of mechanical engineering and just shy of 11 percent of computer engineering majors are women, according to UW-Madison’s enrollment report from 2018.
“It’s harder for women to join study groups or find programming partners because other students don’t necessarily see women as being smart in STEM fields,” Madeline Juillard, an undergraduate advisor for Computer Sciences said. “I’ve talked to female students that told me they care about promoting gender diversity in tech, but they also just want a good job.”
Yet, this disparity is not on a university-wide basis, with nearly 95 percent of human development and family studies as women, 88 percent of nursing, and 77 percent of psychology, it is clear that the university and its respective departments have some work to do to ensure that all students – regardless of gender identity – feel welcome pursuing the program of their choice.
Kacee Hostetler, who switched from the College of Letters and Science to the College of Engineering this past semester, discussed the glaring differences between the two.
“I was made much more aware of my gender,” Hostetler said. “I’ve been in lab and study groups with no other women before, which can make you feel like you have to struggle to be heard.”
This was echoed by Emily Vesper, an industrial engineering major and the vice president of external communications for the Society of Women Engineers (SWE).
“You just notice it,” Vesper said. “I think about some of my big, more general classes like Calc 2, Calc 3, Physics 201 — some of those really big lectures — you kind of look around and think, ‘Wow, there are a lot more guys than girls here.’”
This phenomenon is not exclusive to the computer sciences and engineering hubs, however.
According to Susan Hering, an undergraduate advisor, the economics student body is now 30 percent female. “And that is an all-time high,” she said. “We’re seeing women go less far in math and not take as much.”
This disparity isn’t exclusive to the student body, but rather can be extended to all of academia.
“There are very very few women of color on the engineering faculty, and that can be a little difficult sometimes with accessibility,” said Emilie Wille, a member of the Society of Women Engineers. “There are certain issues that women deal with in the industry and academia that kind of go by some male professors, so I think it’s important that women have greater representation there.”
Mia Hanson, who is a Mathematics major here at UW-Madison, discussed how the lack of female professors has led to her and other female students to band together in their classes.
“Currently all my professors are men, and not one of them has treated me with the same level of respect as a male student. But my peers are probably the worst part,” Hanson said. When her all-male group members consistently doubted her answers last semester, Hanson relied on her female TA heavily. “I started calling over my TA asking if my answer was right, and she would confirm my answer in front of them. She had my back,” Hanson said.
Luckily for students like Hanson, some male-dominated departments are now recognizing how the lack of professional and academic women in the field is impacting their retention rates in majors such as economics.
“As we’ve researched why we do have this gender gap in our students, we’ve found that a significant part of that is women in our department have few role models or have had few role models,” Hering said.
So how do we help counter these disparities and offer support for women in such fields?
Student organizations specifically for women in these fields, such as Women in Finance and Accounting or the Association of Women in Agriculture, are helping non-male-identifying students build networks and support systems in their departments, as well as gaining support from faculty and staff.
“[SWE] gives so much visibility to women in engineering because you see this giant group of people and think, ‘Wow, these are all women and they’re all engineers,’” Wille said. “It makes others outside of SWE and engineering see that we are a powerful force, and we exist and do great things.”
Though it still has a way to go in closing gender gaps in faculty, the university has also made strides toward hiring more women when trying to fill department vacancies to ensure better representation for current and prospective students.
“In trying to address the gender gap among our undergraduate students, we have necessarily turned to putting more women in front of them,” Hering said of the economics department’s recent hiring efforts.
Some departments, such as the College of Engineering and the Business School, have established Diversity Affairs offices to tackle the hefty job of being more inclusive and accessible for historically marginalized groups, including women, in their respective departments.
There are also efforts within the university to bring recognition of women and increase their representation in educator roles. The College of Engineering’s Diversity Affairs Office, for example, exists to help draw in and support female students and those who come from underrepresented backgrounds within STEM through various student programs and providing resources to build strong networks and connections.
Other departments are focusing on outreach and recruitment to help retain and pull new interest for their respective fields, such as the computer sciences department’s acknowledgement that this disparity has deep roots before students come to college.
“When I go to SOAR in the summer, the vast majority of freshmen that I talk to interested in Computer Sciences are men. So, combating this disparity can’t just happen in college — by then it’s too late,” Juillard said. “For recruitment, we have a service learning course, CS 402, where CS majors go to elementary/middle schools and run programming clubs. It’s a great way for our students to be invested in recruitment in CS and gets elementary school kids interested in CS early.”
This type of outreach may help keep the recent rapid growth of computer science majors stable and potentially bridge the gender disparity gap.
Debra Deppeler, a computer sciences faculty associate, also discussed how this gendered notion of STEM is built into educational systems, specifically the requirements (or lack thereof) for students at the gen-ed college level and high schools. By increasing these requirements, students may discover a passion for a field that they had previously thought of as off-limits.
“I do think that requiring math, science and computing of all students helps. There are always some who never knew how much they like solving problems this way,” Deppeler said. “When all students see it as a basic literacy issue and not as a gendered-issue, it will be better for all of us.”
While welcoming and encouraging women to go into STEM is largely a responsibility of society, and a necessary responsibility at that, the university should be more proactive and help initiate this shift through hiring more women faculty and staff.
Representation is key for making non-male-identifying students feel welcome in academic spaces, especially such male-dominated fields. Having a female professor or TA could mean the difference between connecting and engaging with what’s learned in the classroom — knowing that female students’ ideas and questions are valid — and feeling marginalized and unvalued among their peers.
And faculty members from these fields recognize the necessity of this, as well as the efforts that have been done so far and need to continue.
“Every one of the departments here who have a persistent problem with parity between men and women is working on it,” Hering said. “I think there are very many departments here that need to work on it, but I also think the university is working on it.”