‘She Is a Scientist’ Series Asks Why Women Are Still Scarce in STEM

Thirty-eight percent of Smith students who declared majors chose at least one STEM field last year. Here, Ileana Streinu, Charles N. Clarke Professor of Computer Science, assists a student.

During their lunch break in Ford Hall recently, sophomores Grace Lee and Christine Hamilton took a moment to reflect on what it’s like to study science and technology at Smith.

In addition to a focus on “real-world problems” and opportunities for research, they said they appreciate the learning environment Smith provides as a women’s college.

“The all-woman atmosphere is really nice,” said Lee, who plans to major in engineering. “There’s no competition or intimidation. We’re all working towards a common goal.”

“At Smith, you’re not surrounded by men; so you think less about gender,” said Hamilton, who is also interested in engineering. “Going out into the field, it’s going to be different.”

How different? Studies show women make up less than one third of the workforce of most U.S. technology companies. For example, only 29 percent of employees at Microsoft Corp. and only 15 percent of tech workers at Facebook are women, those firms report.

The gender gap shows up in other ways in the sciences. A new study by the American Association of University Women found that female computer and information science majors earn only 77 percent of what men with the same degrees earn after they graduate.

The forces behind those figures are the inspiration for a campus lecture series that begins Monday, Oct. 20. The four-part “She Is a Scientist” program will explore gender issues in STEM fields—short for science, technology, engineering and math.

The series, sponsored by the Clark Science Center, the Lazarus Center for Career Development and the Smith Lecture Committee, aims to provide concrete strategies for supporting women in STEM disciplines.

Organizers say they sought out experts who could bring a broad perspective to the topic, while at the same time recognizing Smith’s leadership in preparing women for careers in STEM.

“We want things to change, and we believe Smith can play a role,” said Patricia DiBartolo, psychology professor and faculty director of the sciences, who helped organize the series.

She noted that Smith students have shown “tremendous interest in STEM,” with 38 percent of those who have declared a major choosing at least one STEM field, according to the latest figures.

“We are uniquely positioned as a women’s college to solidify students’ sense of themselves as scientists,” DiBartolo said.

Stacie Hagenbaugh, director of career development at Smith, said the idea for the “She Is a Scientist” series also grew out of the experiences of alumnae who “didn’t experience gender discrimination while they were studying here, but once they graduated all of a sudden found they were the only women in the lab.”

The lecture series opens with a look at “Why aren’t more women in science?” by Katherine Aidala, associate professor of physics at Mount Holyoke College. Aidala will speak on Monday, Oct. 20, from 4:30 to 6 p.m. in Seelye 106.

Other topics and speakers in the series are:

  • “Gender-STEM Identity Compatibility Among Women Scientists” by Bonita London, associate professor of social and health psychology at SUNY Stony Brook, Tuesday, Feb. 10, 2015, 5-6:30 p.m., Seelye 106.
  • “Girls and Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics: STEMing the Tide and Broadening Participation in STEM Careers,” by Nilanjana Dasgupta ’92, professor of psychology and director of faculty equity and inclusion at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Monday, April 20, 4:30-6 p.m., Seelye 106.
  • “The Changing Status of Women in Science: The MIT Story (1964-2014)” by Nancy Hopkins, Amgen, Inc., professor of biology at Massachusetts Institute of Technology Tuesday, May 12, 9-10:30 a.m., Campus Center Carroll Room.

Hopkins’ lecture will be followed by a discussion with Smith faculty about how to expand support for students in STEM fields.

“We hope that there are concrete approaches that will result,” DiBartolo said. “We’ll be looking at the lessons we can learn and things we can be doing better.”

April Birnie ’15, said she relied on lessons learned at Smith while interning at a prestigious research institute in Germany this past summer.

Birnie, who is majoring in chemistry, said she was the only woman working in her particular lab at the Forschungszentrum Jülich in North-Rhine Westphalia.

“I tried not to take the jokes about women cleaning up after dinner too seriously,” said Birnie, who hopes someday to teach chemistry. “Going through the lab courses at Smith has made me feel more like a scientist.”