When Lauren Lui walks into work, she puts on her lab coat and safety goggles. She is surrounded by beakers, Bunsen burners and microscopes — all objects you would expect to find in a lab.
Although this is a typical day for Lui, it’s a scene that is more rare than one would imagine in the 21st century, as the fields of science and engineering are still primarily dominated by men.
By college graduation, men outnumber women in nearly every science and engineering field across the country, and in some cases, the difference is extensive. At UC Santa Cruz, women make up only 15 percent of bachelor’s degree recipients in physics and engineering majors, according to UCSC’s Office of Informational Research.
“The biggest challenge in women getting involved in STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] is feeling that they belong to the high-tech world,” said Lui, a UCSC graduate student and Communication Chair of Women in Science and Engineering (WiSE).
Although statistics demonstrate that girls compare closely with boys in standardized math and science tests at the K-12 level, the stereotype that women are not “capable enough” for these fields persists. Once enrolled in a four-year university, women are not nearly as involved as men in the STEM fields, even though there are groups at the professional and collegiate levels trying to change this through outreach.
At UCSC, 54 percent of students and 42 percent of faculty make up the current female undergraduate and staff population. Female students comprise 14 percent of the Jack Baskin School of Engineering, compared to 55 percent of all humanities majors.
Groups like UCSC’s Women in Science and Engineering (WiSE) aim to advance women’s roles in STEM fields by reaching out to female students both before and during college.
In July 2011, Margaret Ortega’s position as WiSE’s director of diversity recruitment and retention in the graduate division was eliminated. WiSE now reports directly to dean of graduate studies Dean Miller and is completely student-run. Although WiSE still has funding from the UCSC Women’s Center and the Center for Bio-molecular Science and Engineering Research Mentoring Institute (CBSE), it has lost the guidance and support Ortega’s position offered.
WiSE has taken the initiative to improve the number of women in STEM fields on campus. It has been able to expand and survive despite budget cuts by letting graduate students run the organization.
“We currently have a staff advisor in CBSE — Zia Isola — and we benefit greatly from her mentorship. I worry about what would happen if her position was eliminated, too,” Lui said.
WiSE encourages UCSC members by connecting them to mentors, and providing networking opportunities as well as seminars and discussions, to further learning through outreach.
When Lui was an undergraduate at UC Davis, she endured the challenges of feeling isolated from her major, which was mathematical and scientific computation with an emphasis in biology. She said with a small number of women in her classes, it was hard to relate to anyone, and she felt outnumbered.
“When I was an undergrad, one of my computer science classes had only three women,” Lui said. “It just makes you feel weird, when you’re the only one wearing pink. It’s hard being one of the few girls.”
In 2010, WiSE decided to expand its outreach to high schools and middle schools in Santa Cruz County, focusing not only on women, but on retaining people from all underrepresented backgrounds.
Lui said outreach at an early age is important to piquing girls’ interest in the sciences.
“Women might have not been encouraged at an early age,” Lui said. “So you miss out on a huge pool of talent. It’s important to have this diversity because we bring a different point of view to these fields.”
Stacey Falls, an advanced placement (AP) chemistry teacher at Santa Cruz High School, is one of the three local teachers who have worked with WiSE.
Although Falls had no prior knowledge of WiSE before allowing the group to come into her classroom, the organization was persistent and made it evident that outreach was important.
“They really made a point of calling me back over and over,” Falls said. “But I didn’t know the people who were so persistent in calling were part of a program named WiSE, and I didn’t realize it had anything to do with women in science and engineering.”
After WiSE got in contact with Falls, she noticed some students began to develop enthusiasm for the STEM fields.
“A group of graduate students came to my class,” Falls said. “They were awesome. My AP chemistry students were pretty excited about getting to know and hang out with grad students. I know my students felt like they got insight into the life of grad students.”
The graduate students decided to involve the AP chemistry class in their own research.
“The group of graduate students did some science-y activities related to their work,” Falls said. “Later, my students voted on which grad student’s work they were most interested in, and they came back and did more in-depth activities related to their research.”
Falls said gender dynamics “influence not only whether women study science in the first place, but also what kind of science they are more prone to study.” Based on Falls’ experience as a college student, women are drawn to “fuzzy science,” like environmental science or biology, as opposed to chemistry or engineering.
UCSC’s numbers support Falls’ theory — women actually make up 59 percent of ecology and evolutionary biology majors, while only having a presence of 11 percent in computer science.
Falls said she recognizes that if students are given the appropriate exposure to the STEM fields in high school and then go into a four-year university, they are able to decide if the STEM fields are a right choice for them.
However, the need to get women involved in STEM fields as undergraduates is only half the issue. Although women represent 50 percent of all Ph.D.s, and make up a large part of scientific research in some fields, they are still more likely to fall out of STEM fields before attaining a concrete position, according to a study done by UC Berkeley in 2009.
Perhaps this is because often women are more likely than their male counterparts to leave their careers in STEM fields, often out of a desire to start a family.
The “Keeping Women in the Science Pipeline” study, conducted by UC Berkeley, found that many research universities do not give much help to women in this situation.
“[S]ome universities may not be complying with Title IX,” the study states, “which requires that research universities receiving federal funds 1) treat pregnancy as a temporary disability for purposes of calculating job-related benefits, including any employer-provided leave, and 2) provide unpaid, job-protected leave for ‘a reasonable period of time’ if the institution does not maintain a leave policy for employees.”
Fourth-year and information systems management (ISM) major Evelyn Caño wanted to be in a field that would develop her skills in problem solving and challenge her knowledge of the world.
“I wasn’t told that my field is uncommon,” Caño said. “I just discovered it on my own from my experiences in my own classes. The ratio of women to men has always been uneven.”
Outreach was what first sparked Caño’s interest in her major.
“I was invited to attend the Engineering Summer Bridge Program at UCSC for a week, during the summer as an incoming freshman,” Caño said. “My sophomore year, I took my first information systems management course and felt that not only was I exposed to engineering and technology early, but also the management and business perspective, which I found to be a very attractive combination.”
Female students, including Caño, may feel intimidated by their male peers when studying together, but students are still able to build a community and connect with each other when studying.
“The few women that I see in the field are close, but the guys are not exclusive either. We all work together,” Caño said. “[It’s not] until upper divisions that you find out who is going to stick with you. I’ll admit it was hard getting a study buddy.”
Caño said a recent review session for one of her computer engineering courses brought her to a new realization.
“At that moment, it crossed my mind that maybe seeing four girls sitting together, the male students probably assumed they were in the wrong class,” Caño said. “[All these comments] made me feel like some males underestimated women’s potential for majoring in engineering, or possibly just assumed women found no interest in the field.”
As one of the few female professors in the UCSC Jack Baskin School of Engineering, Tracy Larrabee experienced firsthand the isolation that many women feel within the STEM departments.
“I thought time would fix this,” Larrabee said. “I thought the existence of role models would fix this. I thought society’s liberalization would fix this. I was wrong. I’m done trying.”
Larrabee’s high school teachers told her she could not go into the sciences because of her gender.
“I was told point blank [by my teachers] that I couldn’t do it,” Larrabee said. “More than once, [I heard] that girls couldn’t, in general, and that I couldn’t specifically. I had a better education, apparently, than kids get now — even if the current education is much more politically correct.”
According to a 2011 study conducted by the University of California, Berkeley, K-12 schools do not have the resources nor the support necessary to provide students with quality science learning opportunities because of budget cuts in state funding.
Former middle school teacher Preetha Menon taught sixth through eighth grade science, but left teaching to go back to school and address specific education issues in her own school system. She said that often, not enough time was spent on science in her classroom.
“In most elementary schools where the majority of my middle school students came from, [the students] did not experience much science learning,” Menon said. “Most students would tell me that they had science classes only once a week in the fourth and fifth grades, and in the lower grades, it was taught occasionally.”
This past fall Baskin Engineering announced on its website that a record number of women are pursuing degrees in computer science and computer engineering.
UCSC third-year molecular cell and developmental biology major Alex Benanti said it is up to women to bring a fresh perspective to the relatively male-dominated STEM fields.
“It is now our turn to work hard to further our presence as women within the sciences,” Benanti said, “not that we should ever seek to overshadow our male counterparts. Rather, we should aim to partner with the men currently in the field and bring our perspective from a woman’s point of view to strengthen the scientific discipline as a whole.”