Guest speaker discusses gender inequality within STEM majors

Jill Bystydzienski, chair of the Department of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at The Ohio State University, spoke about the issue of representation of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields on Wednesday Oct. 23. Her discussion was part of Geneseo’s All-College hour speaker series, which hosts distinguished speakers in the College Union Ballroom throughout the semester.

“Systemic barriers exist in all areas to some extent, but they are most exacerbated in STEM fields,” Bystydzienski said.

According to Bystydzienski, women now constitute the majority of students obtaining degrees at the Bachelor’s and Master’s levels. However, there is a significant lack of women receiving degrees in many STEM fields, with women constituting ten percent and lower of students in majors like computer science and engineering.

These discrepancies are further reflected in the faculty of colleges and universities, according to Bystydzienski.

“On average, women make up approximately 38 percent of the faculty at universities,” Bystydzienski said. “However, on average only 14 percent of the faculty in engineering departments are women.”

These discrepancies in the workforce can be seen not only at places of higher learning, but in companies and research institutions in various STEM fields across the country.

Bystydzienski added that there are a number of systemic obstacles on the track to a career in STEM fields that target women more specifically than they do men. Among these barriers she lists traditional teaching methods, college practices of “weeding out” students from specific majors, hostile classroom environments and the issue of balancing a STEM career with maintaining personal relationships and raising a family.

She also noted a fair amount of implicit bias regarding gender in these STEM fields.   “Both men and women unconsciously assume that a female student or scholar will not produce work equal in worth to their male counterparts,” she said.

This ingrained assumption is one of the most dangerous barriers to women pursuing education and careers in STEM fields, and it is also one of the most difficult obstacles to remove.

Bystydzienski does believe that these problems can be removed.

“First we would have to change the departmental culture,” she said. “Liberal arts colleges, such as Geneseo, have always had the practice of nurturing undergrads, and a long track-record of producing students that move on to graduate school.”

By creating more nurturing environments such as these in institutions other than liberal arts colleges, she says, the barriers to women will begin to fall.

Possibly the most important step in the process of equalizing representation in STEM fields is discussion, both on a local and national level, she said.

“Every institution has its limitations,” Bystydzienski said. “Undergraduates need to organize, and be given the opportunity to voice their concerns to the faculty and administration.  Only through continued and expanded discussion will the issue ever see a resolution.”