CSU ahead of national curve for women in STEM

Sean Kennedy

At a time when issues of gender equality are coming under national scrutiny, Colorado State University can take pride in the fact that it is ahead of the curve where it counts: in the classroom.

Data for the 2016-2017 school year shows that colleges at Colorado State are enrolling and graduating female students in majors in science, technology, engineering and math —also referred to as STEM— at a rate greater than the national average.

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According to research from the National Science Foundation, women today earn about half of all bachelor’s degrees awarded to STEM majors. Enrollment data from CSU indicates that female students are poised to better that mark this year, as women make up 53 percent of all STEM students at CSU.

Part of these numbers could be due to the efforts of student organizations on campus. CSU has several student-run clubs and Greek Life organizations related to various fields of science, including the Society of Women Engineers. According to the president of SWE, Stephanie Higgins, student engagement can be surprisingly robust.

“We had 95 people show up to our first meeting this year in the fall,” said Higgins, a senior Mechanical Engineering major. “It’s really cool to see how excited some people are in what we do.”

However, despite enrolling more women than average in STEM majors overall, CSU lags behind in the percentage of enrolled female students in engineering.

While the colleges of Agricultural Sciences, Health and Human Sciences, Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Science are each at least 65 percent female, the student body of the College of Engineering, in contrast, is nearly three-quarters male.

This disparity is echoed in colleges across Colorado. At the University of Colorado – Boulder’s College of Engineering, 74 percent of the college is male. CU-Denver’s College of Engineering and Applied Science is 79 percent male. The Colorado School of Mines’ entire student body is 71 percent male.

Enrollment differences according to gender are not limited to traditionally male-dominated majors. The University of Northern Colorado has similar gender trends as CSU has in science majors like biological and health sciences, which at both schools are dominated by women. According to enrollment data from UNC, female students majoring in biology and biomedical science outnumber their male peers two to one. Female students also comprise over 57 percent of UNC’s chemistry major.

These disparities at CSU and other Colorado colleges mirror national trends. According to the National Science Foundation, women earn roughly 58 percent of all undergraduate degrees in biological sciences, and they receive about 40 percent of natural science degrees. At CSU, the numbers are above average, at 73 percent and 53 percent respectively.

But, NSF data show that women earn less than 20 percent of all engineering degrees. The picture is a bit rosier for women at CSU, where female undergrads currently make up 25 percent of students in engineering.

But although CSU may be ahead overall, some say the gender disparities in science majors can still create problems.

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“It can definitely have a boy’s club feel sometimes, though I’ve never had anyone refuse to help me with homework or anything like that,” Higgins said. “I feel like the guys make a stronger connection with each other than the girls do.”

According to the American Association of University Women, females studying science still face biases that often follow them from their academic lives into their professional careers. Common social biases, like the idea of science and engineering fields being exclusive to men, can contribute to discrimination that limits women engineers and scientists in the advancement of their careers. The National Science Foundation notes that women are represented professionally in rates even smaller than their rates of representation in STEM majors in college.

Higgins noted that while she noticed “some differences” in how women in engineering at CSU are treated differently than men, she never felt discriminated against until it came to the workplace. Higgins, who worked for several months at a plant co-op during 2015, noted that her assistance was passed up multiple times by male supervisors during her time at the company in favor of newer, less-experienced male coworkers.

“I’ve known that (discrimination against women engineers) was a stereotype, but I never experienced it until I worked at that co-op,” Higgins said.

While the rate of women earning engineering degrees has increased by 3 percent since 1995 to make up almost a fifth of all engineering graduates, the percentage of women actually employed as engineers is only about 15 percent.

Campus organizations at CSU like the Society of Women Engineers are working to address this gap between female representation in STEM education and the workforce by reaching out to girls when they are younger.

“I feel like a reason why not a lot of women go into engineering is because they aren’t taught and they don’t know in high school what engineering is actually about,” Higgins said. “I mean the only reason I had any idea of what engineering was in high school is because my dad was a civil engineer.”

The Society of Women Engineers reaches out to young women in middle schools and high schools by working with local schools and organizations to sponsor activities like the Pretty Brilliant program, a project in which members of the Society educated and worked with girls from local grade schools to install lights in a Habitat For Humanity house. Through events like these, the Society hopes to increase the roles of women in engineering at CSU and around the country.

“We want to make women feel comfortable in engineering,” Higgins said. “We want to show them why it’s so important for them to be here.”