Programs bridge gender gap

Published 10:25 am Monday, March 13, 2017

by Alexa Nash
Capital News Service

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 under-representation of women in the workforce.