Students and Faculty in STEM form an alliance and defy the gender statistics

Jaedyn Young reports on women at the University of Nevada, Reno, coming together to climb their way into the male-dominated STEM field.

A UNR student catches up on her STEM homework in the DeLaMare Science and Engineering Library. Photo by Jaedyn Young.

Abbey Leff, a senior biology major minoring in psychology, spends most of her time outside of class at the University of Nevada, Reno, working on brain labs or studying organisms for hefty exams — and occasionally crying in the tutoring center to the nearest teaching assistant.

Women in the STEM field — which umbrellas science, technology, engineering and mathematics majors — are putting their all into their classes, simply trying to make it through an extraneous field still overwhelmingly male dominated.

“This major is not for the weak, that’s for sure. You really have to be passionate about the field in order to make it,” Leff said. “During finals week, I spent 12 hours a day in the library last semester.”

According to a report from March 2022 by the National Girls Collaborative Project, women only account for 34 percent of the STEM workforce and most are geared towards social and life sciences, with low numbers in computer science and engineering.

The data the National Science Board collected in 2019 about the demographics groups of STEMs, trends have remained generally the same since 2010, with only a two percent increase seen for women in the workforce. Women also tend to flock towards the sciences rather than fields like engineering, where they only make up 16 percent of the workforce.

“Engineering is definitely a male dominated field, but the ratio has been evening out in recent years,” said Alyssa Reichert, a sophomore in civil engineering at the university. “At UNR, our introductory course for engineering is taught by three female professors, and the lab sections are mentored by about thirty TA’s with about half of us being women. I feel like this creates a safe environment for female engineering majors that may be doubting themselves.”

A typical lab that exists in the Scrugham Engineering and Mines Building on the University of Nevada, Reno campus. If you tour the inside, you may catch a few classes where you see some women taking over the demographics of STEM courses. Photo by Jaedyn Young.

Even small increases in the percentages of women in the STEM field have brought the group together to try to work their way up in the ranks, slowly getting their foot in the door.

Makayla Wijesinghe, a junior majoring in neuroscience and minoring in community health science, spends most of her time studying which can make it hard for her to manage clubs or outside extracurricular activities.

“I’ve reached a point in my academic career where I don’t really have much homework anymore but I should be studying everyday or going to office hours,” said Wijesinghe.

For a lot of college students in general, the loss of motivation and commitment can be detrimental to their choice in major and place in higher education. This could be the potential problem as to why women in STEM have such low percentages in the workforce post-graduation.

Three women spent a recent afternoon between classes studying at the Mathewson-IGT Knowledge Center. Photo by Jaedyn Young.

Peyton Cromer, a senior Nevada Teach and biology double major, actually changed her field of choice within the STEM umbrella. However, it wasn’t just due to the work.

“COVID was actually a factor in why I chose to discontinue my premed route,” Cromer said. “STEM teachers seemed to care less in the time of COVID and healthcare workers were worked quite literally to death. It put a sour taste in my mouth regarding STEM as a whole.”

Savannah Tarnowski, a junior majoring in public health on the pre-med track, agrees that due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the entire field dealt with a split. She said some women were deterred from the field or pushed towards it due to the pandemic — she just happened to be on the other side of the fallout.

“I think COVID motivated me more to be a STEM major, because I witnessed all of the hard work doctors were putting in first hand during the pandemic, and I loved seeing the lives they changed,” said Tarnowski.

However, besides the heavy obstacles they’ve faced along the way, the women in the report explained the easiest thing they’ve found about their field was making connections with other women and friends. They’ve all found ways to get together and form solid study groups to help each other succeed in the field.

“I have realized that in jobs and work outside of school, many of the older co-workers tend to listen and trust male opinions more,” Wijesinghe said. “I luckily haven’t seen this in my science classes at UNR. So many women in STEM want to support and encourage one another that I have met some amazing people.”

The UNR STEM Career and Internship Fair was a hit for STEM students searching for connections to future employers. Events like these can be extremely beneficial to women who are looking for a solid standing in the future of their workforce.

In the past it may have always been seen as a male-dominated field that women never used to feel a part of. Now that women like Leff, Cromer, Tarnowski, Reichert and Wijesinghe are willing to share their STEM experiences, it promotes future generations to do the same with their futures in STEM — or even encourages them to pursue STEM careers.

“Women in STEM inspire those who aren’t used to seeing themselves on the screen or otherwise represented in the media,” Cromer said.

The future may be changing as new generations of women gather together to jump head first into the STEM field, united and committed to different pathways.

“Don’t let people discourage you. STEM is very possible and needs more women in it,” said Wijesinghe.

Even if the STEM field is slowly shifting to different demographics, there still seems to be an increase in the female percentages. Many of them seem to be willing to act as the driving forces, breaking through the stigmas and statistics — even if it means a lot more work to do it.

“The most challenging thing with this major is finding the discipline to do it, and the sacrifices I sometimes have to make,” Leff said. “There’s nobody holding your hand, and you just have to get it done. [But] it is extremely rewarding.”

Reporting by Jaedyn Young for the Reynolds Sandbox

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