Gender Gaps and STEM Students at the U


The James L. Sorenson Molecular Biotechnology Building at the University of Utah. Chronicle archives.

By Barbara Pace, News Writer


Women in STEM Fields

Nationwide, women represent only 25% of the STEM workforce. In Utah, completion rates for STEM degrees are even lower than the national average. Although some Utah women report feeling unwelcome in male-dominated workplace cultures, STEM degrees in Utah are valuable. For example, Utah is currently ranked among the top ten states for the tech industry. Accounting for 1 in 7 jobs in 2018, the tech sector is the fastest-growing and highest-paying industry in Utah, responsible for over 16% of all workforce earnings.


STEM Department Ratios at the U

At the University of Utah’s Department of Mathematics, 21% of faculty members are women. In the Department of Biomedical Engineering, 19% of faculty members are women. In the School of Computing, 34% of faculty members are women. In the Department of Chemistry, 30% of faculty members are women, and 16% of faculty members are women in the Department of Mechanical Engineering. At first glance, unequal faculty gender participation ratios may seem to indicate gender bias; however, since women in the U.S. only pursue about 25% of the STEM degrees (and even fewer women in Utah pursue them), these statistics could also indicate that women are about as likely as men to attain STEM faculty positions when they apply for them. Ratios of female STEM faculty members overall mirror ratios of Utah women in these fields.


The U’s STEM Student Response

A female material science major, who wished to be anonymous, said, “I’m in material sciences, which has one of the highest ratios of women. I would say that in my program I’ve felt very comfortable and welcome in spite of there being no female professors.”

“I feel like early on I had to learn ways to assert myself,” she said. “One thing I learned is that when I need to be taken seriously I drop my voice to lower than it would be naturally. It seems to help people take me more seriously. Before, sometimes I’d make a comment, and someone would make an almost identical comment later, and people would react like it was a new comment. When that happened I didn’t feel listened to. It mostly happened in science classes. Now I present myself in a way that commands more respect. As a science student, I’ve learned there are situations where being a woman is really a factor, and you really have to assert yourself, but there are plenty of other situations where it isn’t an issue at all.”

“Regarding the females in my classes — they really understand the material, and I actually go to some of them for help,” said Nicolai Su. “I study computer science. Compared to a few years ago, now there are a lot more women in class. Some of them really get the material. We get together and discuss code.“

When asked if she’d experienced gender bias as a student at the U, Mary Jeppson said, “I’m a chemical engineering major — a senior. In chemical engineering, the environment is very supportive for women. I’ve never felt uncomfortable. Literally never.” Jeppson said, “The faculty is very supportive. As a woman in this program, I’ve had great experiences in research positions and internships. I’m considering pursuing a related graduate degree.”

A female engineering student born outside the United States, who wished to remain anonymous, said, “I’m hearing that there are biases. I’ve heard that a woman needs to work more to prove herself. But I’m not worried. I’ve tried to gain other skills that might compensate for that. Besides my engineering skills, I’ve tried to improve my communication skills by taking courses. Also, a lot of organizations want women and minorities for their quotas.”

Jack Montgomery, a mechanical engineering student, gave women in his department high marks. “I’m in mechanical engineering. Honestly, most of the women in my classes are smarter and seem to work harder than average,” said Montgomery. “I’ve had two female professors. One in particular, Dr. Spear, is the best professor I’ve had here for sure. She’s incredible. When I took her statics class early on, I felt like it was one of the weed-out classes. Doing well in there made me feel like I could succeed. The class was structured super well,” Montgomery said. “She also took a lot of time to work on things with students after class. She’s just a master of the class.”

A male professor of mechanical engineering, who also asked to remain anonymous, said, “A large part of the mechanical engineering faculty is female. The female students in my classes do just as well as the men. I’ve seen lots of good female engineers. I don’t see a lot of overt sexism. I think some women don’t prefer careers in math, for example, compared to softer sciences like industrial engineering. 

“Among those who do choose to go into the more male-dominated fields, I think you get strong, capable women,” he said. “They go in knowing it will be a little uphill, and they’ve steeled their minds against that. Some fields have been dominated by men for a long time. I think certain women are better able to handle being in the minority. Some aren’t comfortable with being in the minority. That slows down progress.”

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