UT females face gender disparity in STEM classrooms

By Bella McWhorter

AUSTIN — “I feel anger.”

Student Sierra Prempeh settled on feeling only anger about the fact that she feels discriminated against for her gender — specifically anger because her professor and male students often treat her like she is less qualified and must be held to lower expectations. Not one of her professors are female.

Recent data has shown that females in the STEM — science, technology, engineering, mathematics — fields are all too familiar with gender bias in the workforce. The University of Texas at Austin is also no stranger to gender disparity within its STEM majors/classes.

Computer science and neuroscience sophomore Prempeh said that she did not notice a problem with gender disparity until she came to college.

“It makes me angry because I know what I’m doing, that’s why I’m here,” Prempeh said. “(Professors) treat the male students like they know what is going on more. But everyone at this university knows what they are doing in their major; that’s why they picked their major.”

According to the National Girls Collaborative Project data, while women receive more than half of bachelor’s degrees awarded in the biological sciences, they receive far fewer when it comes to other STEM majors. In the computer sciences women nationally receive only 17.9 percent of bachelor’s degrees, 19.3 percent in engineering, 39 percent in physical sciences and 43.1 percent in mathematics.

Despite progress in gender integration within biological sciences, biology freshman Kamryn Scamperle still feels that in her biology major classes she is a minority.

“There is a clear 25 to 75 majority of men in my (science) classes,” Scamperle said. “It’s hard and frustrating because you are not what (professors) expect. You have to work your way in, but it’s more motivating than discouraging.”

According to Tricia Berry, director of Women in Engineering and director of the Texas Girls Collaborative Project, gender disparity in STEM is a societal problem that must be addressed, but it is also a problem that is improving at UT-Austin.

“Our university is definitely doing better than other institutions across the country,” Berry said. “We have a higher graduation rate of female engineers here at UT … but yes there is definitely still work to be done; our numbers are still under 50 percent.”

According to Berry, a huge reason behind the lack of women representation in STEM majors is that young girls are not always exposed to the sciences and therefore don’t learn to be excited about the topic. It is possible that females are not comfortable going into something that they are not familiar with.

Prempeh personally sparked a familiarity with science during her junior year of high school in the school’s robotic club. She did not take great notice of gender disparity at the time, but she was only one of three females in the robotics club and the only female in her eighth grade math class.

“I think a lot of it is just kind of gendered ideas of what we teach girls growing up and of what they are supposed to do, which generally isn’t STEM,” mechanical engineering sophomore William George said.

Though female and male students at the high school level enroll at comparable rates in advanced science courses with 22 percent female and 18 percent male, male students were more likely than female students to take engineering and computer science courses. Males also enrolled in AP computer science at a much higher rate of 81 percent males versus 19 percent females, according to National Girls Collaborative Project data.

“This is a big societal problem. Humans aren’t naturally inclined to do things that disclude people, especially kids,” Prempeh said. “It’s like a mindset that the entire industry needs to change, and maybe if we had people in power talk about and start the conversation then maybe more people would be inclined to continue the conversation, and maybe then things would change.”

Prempeh and Scamperle are two of many female students that have been affected by a lack of gender equity in STEM courses.

“There have been insidious cases were the professor would maybe disregard an answer that a female student would say, or a female student would say something and then a male student would say it, and he would give credit to the male student for the answer. It’s very weird stuff like that,” Prempeh said.

Though this does not happen all the time, both Scamperle and Prempeh agree that their STEM professors hold them to a lower standard than the male students, and have found that the male students in turn will sometimes coddle or treat them as if they are less qualified.

However, this does not apply to all males in the field.

“It is a well known statistic that engineering is a very male saturated field, and people are kind of just aware all-in-all that there are definitely going to be more guys in classes than girls,” George said. “But people who are engineers generally want girls to be engineers so that it is not a male saturated field. Because it is definitely not that girls can’t be engineers … we want more girls.”

Gender disparity at UT is a present issue, but students like Prempeh and Scamperle use it as a motivator rather than a dissuader.

“Marie Curie was the first woman to win a Nobel prize,” Prempeh said, “and she pioneered at a time when women were mostly stay at home moms. No one was doing what she was doing. So she gives me hope that I can be the only woman and I’ll be fine too.”

Bella McWhorter is a journalism sophomore at the University of Texas at Austin, as well as the Copy Desk Chief for The Daily Texan. For questions or concerns you can contact her via email at bella.mcwhorter@utexas.edu or via twitter @bellsiemac.