Our College

The Need for More Women in STEM

Chances are, even if you don’t work in the areas of science, technology, engineering or math, you’re still familiar with the acronym, STEM, defining them. In fact, as STEM elements like science and technology continue to influence almost every aspect of our daily lives, so too, does the need for people to work in and advance these fields. For now, however, STEM fields are significantly understaffed and woefully underrepresented by a key demographic: women.

According to information published by the Economics and Statistics Administration, a division of the U.S. Department of Commerce, women make up almost half of the U.S. workforce, yet they account for less than 25 percent of all STEM jobs. Not surprising, women hold a substantially lower share of undergraduate degrees in STEM fields, as well. For example, while women hold 60 percent of all bachelor’s degrees, less than 20 percent of four-year degrees in computer science, a vital element of STEM, are held by women.

Across the country, there is a push to attract more women to STEM fields because of the multitude of benefits provided by their inclusion. An article, “More Gender Diversity Will Mean Better Science,” from The Chronicle of Higher Education identifies women as a prime source for top academic positions, but also cites women as an additional source for innovation and advancement. The article specifically shares, “It may also lead to innovations in science and engineering since people from different backgrounds bring diverse approaches to problem-solving – in the classroom, laboratories and on the job – that can improve our daily lives.”

Doing Our Part: The College

Alverno, for its role in educating the next generation of women leaders, is in an amazing position to help push for gains in this nationwide initiative. In fact, enrollment in the science and math disciplines steadily increased in the last decade, trending slightly higher than enrollment throughout other areas of the College.

“As a College, we’re becoming more strategic in how we instill the realization in women that math and science is something they can do,” explains Angela Frey, associate dean of Natural Sciences, Mathematics and Technology. “For instance, national studies show that the more students are involved in research, the more they will gravitate to a STEM field, so we’ve geared our curriculum to involve research from their very first classes … even freshmen will have exposure to research and opportunities to engage material.”

Under Frey’s leadership, the College is also actively pursuing opportunities to merge disciplines to more accurately mirror STEM fields. “We’re purposefully making connections within departments because that’s where the industry is headed. For instance, by blending math and biology, students have a more accurate depiction of today’s life sciences.”

In addition, Alverno is offering proactive approaches for a successful segue to graduate programs, including assistance with preparations for the GRE, a graduate placement test, and increased opportunities for undergraduate research studies.

For instance, the Alverno Initiative in Math & Science (AIMS) is a central mission created specifically to unify both faculty- and student-led math and science projects strategically to enhance student success. The foundation of AIMS remains on best practices and proven methods of STEM success, while providing opportunities to facilitate faculty interactions and spark student collaborative learning.

Doing Our Part: The Faculty

Cited by experts across the country, one major barrier to the entry of women into STEM fields is the discouragement of not seeing “themselves” when they look around the room.

“The industry is dominated by men, so women have had few role models,” explains Susan Pustejovsky, professor of Math and Computing. “From a female student’s perspective, the learning environment feels cold if there aren’t other women around.”

Pustejovsky and her departmental peer James Factor, assistant professor of Math and Computing, both earned doctorate degrees in Math and, while their educational paths were substantially different, their takeaways are actually quite similar.

They agree that not only does the math industry need more women, the world, in actuality, needs more mathematicians, period. To that end, they see a wave of progression that is positively impacting all aspects of the math field.

Factor shares, “Research in math has never been overtly collaborative, however that appears to be changing; thanks to applied math, collaboration may be more prevalent now than ever.”

Of course, the benefit of an academic institution like Alverno to the advancement of more women in STEM is undeniable, “Our institution pays attention to undergraduate students whereas they may fall through the cracks elsewhere,” adds Factor.

Both Pustejovsky and Factor play an important role in guiding Alverno students to graduate programs at other academic institutions. Both professors stress the importance of graduate student organizations, the positive effect of having female colleagues, as well as the impact and power of women faculty.

Doing Our Part: The Result

One such Alverno success story is Janel Hanrahan who is now an assistant professor in the department of Atmospheric Sciences at Lyndon State College in Lyndonville, Vermont.

A non-traditional student by definition, Hanrahan enrolled at Alverno as an Art major at the age of 25. It wasn’t until she took a math class that she realized how much she excelled at math and how much she enjoyed it.

“After deciding on a math major, I worked closely with Susan to discuss career options,” says Hanrahan. “I liked applied math and I liked computer science and that opened the door to a few internship opportunities, which helped me to narrow the scope even further.”

For instance, it wasn’t until after an internship at the Medical College of Wisconsin that Hanrahan ruled out working in a physiology lab. In addition, she wasn’t interested in the actuarial or life sciences. At the time of her Alverno graduation in 2005, Pustejovsky helped to direct her to the Atmospheric Sciences program at UW-Milwaukee. It was there that Hanrahan earned a doctorate degree in 2010.

While Hanrahan enjoyed the program and never felt discriminated or discouraged, she does recall unique challenges to women who choose to pursue a career in science. “Especially in the area of atmospheric sciences where there is little female representation, you are surrounded by men be it at conferences or among faculty.”

Even now, Hanrahan is the only female in the department at Lyndon State College. However, she notes the progressiveness among her peers and sees from student-completed teaching evaluations that her presence is appreciated, especially for soon-to-be atmospheric scientists.

Beyond her current role, Hanrahan and female peers from other colleges see industry-wide changes for which they can advocate. “We noticed in physics and math textbooks that there are a lot of male-focused analogies, including car references such as the relationship of pistons to the engine. These are relatively simple concepts that aren’t clicking for women purely on the basis of a misguided analogy. So those are aspects of STEM that we can be vocal about and be an instrument of positive change.”

As for her advice to future female scientists and mathematicians, “First and foremost, find a strong support network. There might not be many, but the ones out there are excellent. In addition, pursue opportunities to tutor. This really helps as you apply to graduate school because you have a leg-up on TA (teaching assistant) assignments.”