RICHMOND – Kathryn Duda, a third-year computer engineering student at Virginia Commonwealth University, walked into the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) lab her first year and sat down next to a male student working on a project. She was curious and wanted to know what he was doing.
“I walked in there, and it was like he was intimidated by my female presence,” Duda said.
This kind of interaction is not uncommon; women are chronically underrepresented in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) careers, especially in computer science and engineering. According to a 2016 study by the National Science Board, 29 percent of women in the workforce are in STEM careers. Of that percentage, 15 percent are engineers and 25 percent are computer scientists or mathematicians. However, local schools are making progress to promote gender equality in STEM fields.
Duda and her classmate Hiba Nabi, a third-year electrical engineering major, are aware of their minority status, and they say academic and social challenges arise when they could be the only females in the room.
“More women doubt themselves going into STEM areas,” Nabi said. Electrical and computer engineering, Duda and Nabi said, are majors within the school that has a low number of females in comparison to others.
“When I say I’m doing electrical, I get more looks than if I had said I’m doing biomedical engineering,” Nabi said.
This disconnect within STEM-related fields is felt even before women reach college. Dr. Terrie Hale Scheckelhoff, Head of School at St. Catherine’s School in Richmond, saw the underrepresentation of women in STEM as a great disadvantage to society due to untapped potential.
“The world in the past has not been as focused in science, technology, engineering and math, and we’re realizing that’s such a lost opportunity,” Scheckelhoff said. “For young women who haven’t had the skill development and deep exposure to STEM, it could cause them to be discounted out of lots of career options; it could cause them to not be able to fully utilize the many tools available to them beyond college and in life.”
Scheckelhoff spearheaded the all-girls Episcopal school’s STEM-centered curriculum from junior kindergarten through 12th grade. Research by the National Coalition of Girls’ Schools show that three times as many graduates from single-sex schools plan to become engineers, and 48 percent of alumnae say they are great at math as opposed to 37 percent from co-ed schools.
“When we teach science, technology, engineering or math, we are looking at through the lens of women,” Scheckelhoff said. “Women tend to want to understand its relevancy more. It’s helpful if you have female role models, either in person or in the books they read about them, or the stories they hear.” This teaching style promotes confidence in the students’ abilities to pursue STEM careers to supplement the underrepresentation of women in the workforce.
A new independent public school in Richmond is testing a model for STEM education. CodeRVA High School is the result of a need to build a workforce in computer science and technology in the Richmond region. It’s an open, project-based, in-class and online learning environment that focuses on mastery of skills as opposed to grades.
Director Michael Bolling said that gender, race and socioeconomic diversity is emphasized when selecting the students for admission. As of Feb. 22, there are 631 applications for 91 spots in the first ninth and 10th grade class. Of those 631, approximately 30 percent were female. Bolling said that CodeRVA will admit a higher percentage of that 30 percent to promote equality in the student population.
“What we’ll do is set a goal for year one, two, three, four, so that by the time we’re at full capacity, we’ll have a ratio that’s representative of the Richmond region which would be 50/50,” Bolling said.
CodeRVA will work on a multimedia campaign directed toward girls to encourage them to apply. However, the students will inspire final decisions about the marketing campaign approach.
“I’m going to let my female students tell me what we need to do,” Bolling said. He hopes to partner with organizations like Women Who Code to show the female students that they can be successful in a STEM field, as well as have mentors that share their experiences.
Mentorship and support from other females in STEM careers have repeatedly been cited as important factors from those in the community.
“You look for people who are like you and can share your experience,” Duda said. “Seeing that the stereotypes aren’t true and that could be me.”
Biases and stereotypes, Duda said, discourage women from attempting a career like computer or electrical engineering. Ideas that women are inferior to men and individuals that assume STEM careers are anti-social are two stereotypes that Duda and Nabi said are the most common. Bringing awareness to those false generalizations in and outside of the classroom, they said, would be the first step in changing the dialogue.
“People are like, ‘Oh, so you’re going to sit behind a screen and program’ and I’m like no, no, no, I understand the theory of electronics, but I’m going to go out and work on this car, and I’m going to interact with people,” Duda said. “Pull some of the gender out of academics and make it into what it is.”
Dr. Lorraine Parker, director of diversity and student programs at VCU, is also committed to changing the dialogue. She saw the need for a community in which the women in electrical engineering, computer science, computer engineering, mechanical engineering, and nuclear engineering could feel comfortable, so she began VINE: Vertically Integrated Network of Engineers. It’s a group of women from each major comprised of freshman, sophomores, juniors and seniors who meet once a month for complimentary coffee to talk about their academic and social lives. This gives the women a chance to connect with others in their field.
The dean of the School of Engineering, Dr. Barbara Boyan, forged the initiative for diversity and inclusion. It includes educating faculty on unconscious biases and stereotypes to reduce them in the classroom. Parker said that VCU is lucky to have Boyan as a leader for promoting gender equality in STEM education.
“We’ve had talks with faculty and said, if you get teams doing stuff in your class for projects and one is all girls, don’t say, ‘come on girls, show them you can do it,’ which they think is encouragement. But what they’ve really done is triggered this subconscious bias that they’re not supposed to do as well,” Parker said. “The women tend to believe it, which is silly, because they’re the ones doing it.”
Showing the women that they belong in their respective disciplines through peer and professional support is key to pushing them forward into the workplace. Studies have shown that women perform just as well on math tests as men, but once they have to identify their gender, they tend to perform worse. The process to change that mentality begins in the home.
“Expose [girls] to a variety of things when they’re young,” Duda said. “Show them that if they’re interested in something, encourage it. If you hear them say, ‘Oh, I can’t do that because I’m …,’ say, ‘No, of course you can. Of course you can.’”