Higher pay not drawing enough females to science, engineering, math fields
PASADENA, Texas – Higher pay is not drawing enough women to the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), which may be hampering economic growth in America.
A recent report from the U.S. Commerce Department’s Economics and Statistics Bureau stated that a smaller wage gap between the sexes in technical areas such as science, engineering and mathematics is failing to entice more women to take jobs in those fields. Women made up 24 percent of the STEM workforce in 2009, unchanged from 2000, while “female employees in those areas earned 14 percent less than their male counterparts, compared with 21 percent less in other types of work.” U.S. Commerce Secretary Rebecca Blank called the gender gap “unacceptable,” and said the U.S. hasn’t “done as well as we could to encourage young people to go into STEM jobs, particularly women, which inhibits American innovation.” Blank added, “Closing the gender gap in STEM degrees will boost the number of Americans in STEM jobs, and that will enhance US innovation and sharpen our global competitiveness.”
San Jacinto College (SJC) educators are aware of the problem and the College has actively marketed STEM opportunities to female students in recent years. “The challenge for educators is to interest students in the physical, natural world around them,” commented Dr. Catherine O’Brien, SJC’s associate vice chancellor of learning. “Life is a banquet, and children of all ages need to be encouraged to sample a bite of everything. Eventually, they will find that thing for which they have a passion.”
O’Brien’s background is science, and she holds a master’s degree in marine microbiology. “The skills that I think have really helped me career-wise are the analytical skills I developed in science,” she said. “My approach to problems and to processes in my job is based on what I learned about biology systems.”
Like many others, O’Brien dealt with gender stereotyping as a woman pursuing a career in the male-dominated STEM field. “When I was in graduate school, I was the only woman in a lab with six men,” she remarked. “I walked into a conversation and asked what they guys were talking about. ‘We’re supposed to go offshore sampling tomorrow, and we’re not sure if the captain is going to let you aboard the boat.’ My response was, ‘Gentlemen, it’s 1977. I’ll see you on the dock at 5 a.m.’ Mostly, I just ignored gender stereotyping and focused on my own work.”
SJC Central campus chemistry department chair Dr. Ann Cartwright has also encountered gender stereotyping, but it only motivated her to prove her abilities. “During my first year of graduate school, some male faculty and students made it known that women didn’t have a place in the chemistry department,” she commented. “Luckily I was somewhat what Margaret Meade called ‘field independent.’ I interpreted that term to mean ‘outsiders can’t tell me what I am capable of.’ Comments like that did not discourage me. My inward thought was always, ‘I’ll show them I can do this.’”
Cartwright is known for her innovative teaching methods, such as sending SJC students to area elementary schools to interact with younger students with hands-on science demonstrations. She says such interactive learning might be a key in generating more interest in STEM-related careers.
“Minority groups as well as females are underrepresented in the STEM fields,” she remarked. “I want to reach out to our SJC students, and the pre-college age students to show them that science and engineering are possible careers for anyone. Money should not a consideration, but being in a field that challenges and is purposeful should be the consideration.” Cartwright says her target audience to reach with the message is students who do not have role models to help them see what they are capable of and what careers are available to them. “One recent example was a student whose father was an electrician,” she said. “The student planned to be an electrician. SJC faculty showed him the possibilities of being an electrical engineer, and he now has a national award from the American Chemical Society to work towards engineering at a university.”
SJC student Kim Kapke exemplifies how a female can excel in a STEM career field. She excelled as an automotive technology student at SJC, and plans to finish her core subjects at SJC before transferring to the University of Houston to pursue a mechanical engineering degree.
Kapke says many females have natural skills that can help them to excel in STEM jobs. “I believe women are natural communicators and collaborators, and as most engineering projects are headed by a team, being able to communicate ideas and findings efficiently throughout the group, as well as being able to effectively present results to others can directly impact the success of projects,” she said. “I also feel most women have a detail-oriented mindset, although it’s not always a good thing (just ask my boyfriend), but being meticulous can greatly reduce errors and rechecks when working towards a goal.”
Kapke is attracted to mechanical engineering because of the good pay and the flexible career possibilities. “Mechanical engineering offers many career options, especially in the Houston area,” she commented. “Many different industries (automotive, oil, manufacturing) need engineers, so by deciding to go after an engineering degree, I do not feel I am painting myself into a corner. Also, engineering is a continuously changing field. As in the automotive service industry, the technology is always growing and improving. There is never a point where an automotive technician or an engineer knows everything there is to know about their job. There’s no chance for monotony.”
Like Kapke, Melissa de la Fuente excelled in a male-dominated STEM field as a student at SJC. De la Fuente earned an associate degree in engineering from SJC in 2010, and is now pursuing a mechanical engineering degree at UH. She has straightforward advice for girls who may be interested in a STEM career field. “Go for it,” she quipped. “It may not be easy, and it may take lots of your time, but it’s very enriching and if you truly enjoy math and science then you won’t mind putting in the hard work to earn your degree. Just because the STEM fields are male-dominated now doesn’t mean it will always be that way, and women need to encourage one another to excel in these fields so that we can close these gender and wage gaps.”
San Jacinto College offers a wide range of degree plans and course options in science, technology, engineering, and math at all three campuses.
About San Jacinto College: Surrounded by monuments of history, industries and maritime enterprises of today, and the space age of tomorrow, San Jacinto College has been serving the citizens of East Harris County, Texas, for 50 years. The College is committed to the goals and aspirations of a diverse population of more than 29,000 students in over 140 degree and certificate options, including university transfer and career-track choices. Students also benefit from the College’s job training programs, renowned for meeting the needs of growing industries in the region. San Jacinto College. Your Goals. Your College.
For more information about San Jacinto College, please call 281-998-6150, visit www.sanjac.edu, or find us on Facebook at www.facebook.com/SanJacintoCollege.
Photo: Melissa de la Fuente graduated from San Jacinto College in 2010 and is now pursuing a mechanical engineering degree at the University of Houston. Photo credit: Rob Vanya, San Jacinto College marketing department.