By Shanon Quinn
Moscow-Pullman Daily News, Moscow, Idaho.
The number of women in the U.S. workforce has increased dramatically during the past 50 years, but women are still vastly underrepresented in STEM fields, according to the United States Department of Commerce.
More than 75 percent of jobs in the areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics are held by men. The percentage has gone unchanged throughout the past decade despite efforts to recruit more women into such fields.
There may be several factors relating to the gender gap, including a lack of female role models, gender stereotyping and a lack of family-friendly flexibility in the fields, according the department’s report, “Women in STEM: A Gender Gap to Innovation.” Regardless of the cause, the report’s authors said their findings are clear: There is a need to encourage and support women in STEM.
Alyssa Norris works at Washington State University as a mentor coordinator for the Women’s Mentoring Program, which she said pairs 15-25 students per year with professionals in their field.
“The dropout rate for women in engineering, even at WSU, is just phenomenal,” Norris said. “The girls who participate in this mentor program, almost none of them drop out. We have a very high retention rate among the people who participate in this program.”
The program has been in existence for about a decade and is beneficial to students in many ways, she said.
“The No. 1 benefit that I personally got, and a lot of girls have, is the opportunity to talk to someone who’s gone through what you’re going through,” she said. “… Particularly in engineering, just having someone to talk to who can relate to you is very helpful.”
Across the state line at the University of Idaho, Alyssa Ertel, president of the UI’s chapter of the Society of Women Engineers, is halfway through her chemical engineering degree thanks to her own inspiration and encouragement while in high school.
“I had a great female physics professor that encouraged me,” Ertel said.
That encouragement is something Ertel thinks many young women don’t get enough of.
“There are not enough female teachers in high school and at universities that push women to go into science,” she said. “Girls don’t get enough science and aren’t encouraged to get into it.”
Ertel said she had a special reason for being interested in STEM fields.
“When I was 13 my brother was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes,” she said.
Ertel noted it was an experience that changed the way her family lived, and it inspired her to look for a way to help and to encourage other women to move forward in STEM fields.
Part of her duties at the Society of Women Engineers is helping to organize the UI’s annual Women in Engineering Day, a daylong workshop for female high school students in their junior or senior years. The workshop includes a design challenge in which students are teamed up and given a goal, budget and possible supplies in order to build an apparatus — such as a balloon car — and compete against other teams.
Participants also have the opportunity to earn scholarships toward an undergraduate engineering degree at the UI, learn about engineering careers, visit laboratories and research facilities and meet current engineering students and professionals.
Ertel said she plans to enter the bioengineering field to work on drug delivery.
“That’s the dream,” she said.
UI graduate student Katie Peterson said she also received support from a high school teacher and hopes to do the same for others after she receives her Ph.D. in biology.
“My junior year, I took an advanced chemistry class and it’s the hardest class I ever took but I learned the most from it,” Peterson said. “It was a really challenging course for me but it also showed me that I was capable of achieving in science so that was where it all started.”
She said it was the instructor from that class who helped her solidify her decision to move forward in a STEM field.
“He was really helpful in shaping me toward a science career,” she said.
Peterson, who worked with the Palouse-Clearwater Environmental Institute while volunteering with Americorps, said she really enjoys community outreach and hopes to turn her expertise in biology into a career.
“I really enjoy teaching whether it be for students or public outreach and I also really like museums, so if I could teach at a museum that does outreach activities that would be my dream job,” she said.