Putting Femme in STEM

Women are still fighting for representation in the science, technology engineering and mathematics fields.

by Carlo Dekerlegand, Kaylee Dusang, Simone’ Simpson and Jessica Garcia1

Vidushi Adlakha first noticed a gender gap during her undergraduate studies when there were only 10 females in an engineering physics class of 80 students.

These numbers are not unusual for those pursuing the historically male-dominated science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields. Originally from India, Adlakha said receiving a postdoctoral study in physics at the University of Houston is a way for her to encourage more women to pursue degrees and careers in STEM.

“I think that there is probably a very good amount of people who can actually enter (the STEM field),” she said. “They don’t enter because of all the conservative, society norms we have at home.”

One of the main issues is that often leave their studies or jobs in STEM due to hostile workplace environments and lack of female role models in the field.

According to a 2017 report by UNESCO, only about 30 percent of women choose STEM related fields in higher education.

While female enrollment in STEM education is low, the report also found that women often leave the fields during their studies or during their transition into the workforce.

Adlakha said that these numbers are a result of gender stereotypes — such as women remaining home and caring for children — and the lack of female professors at universities.

“If more women would actually come up,” she said. “If they see that there are more female professors that means they are getting encouraged and should take up careers in STEM.”

Along with her studies and being a teaching assistant at the University of Houston, Adlakha recently received a research grant from the American Association of University Women (AAUW). The non-profit is one of several organizations that promote women’s participation in STEM and provide opportunities for study and research in the fields.

Along with gender stereotypes and lack of female STEM professionals in schools and universities, women are often greeted to a hostile workplace environment, according to the AAUW website.

“I feel that sometimes women are so judged by society,” Adlakha said. “That they are supposed to be models, or singers and not become someone who can actually come out and teach people.”

Adlakha’s career path was inspired by one of her professors and her mother who is also a teacher. She said she hopes to have the same effect on students who might look up to her.

“I think when they see me in front of them from the other side of the table, I’m somehow encouraging them to also come on the other side of the table because I was encouraged by my professors,” she said.
Almost one-third of women in the United States plan to leave their STEM careers within a year, according to the Catalyst Knowledge Center.
“That was the first time I saw that we had lesser females getting attracted towards physics,” Adlakha said. “Also, we had very few female professors teaching us the subjects, but they were really good at it.”
Vidushi Adlakha is a postdoctoral candidate from India who is studying physics at the University of Houston. She said her career is inspired by one of her professors and her mother.

According to a study by the Catalyst Knowledge Center, with only 34 percent of women — versus 66 percent of men — graduating college with a STEM degree, it is no surprise that undergraduate students at the University of Houston recognize this gap.

Dwija Parikh, who is a junior studying computer science from India, said that there is always an uneven ratio between men and women in her computer science classes. She said this could be due to the traditional belief that women more often pursue creative studies.

“I think men are just encouraged more,” she said. “Because they see so many other men already in the field, and that’s just a cycle that goes on.”

Tim Ealy, a senior majoring in Biology, said the gender gap in the field is most apparent when he goes to his class of 100 people and there are only 30 females. He said he believes many students do not want to study a STEM related field, but that it tends to be more intimidating to women.

“There is the old stigma that men are smarter than women which we obviously know is not true,” Ealy said. “Also, STEM is pretty boring and they require a lot of work, so I can understand why a lot of people don’t want to do STEM.”

With STEM research and careers leading new innovations throughout society, the representation of women is important to combat human rights issues and for the progress of sustainable development within the fields, according to the UNESCO report.

Despite the underrepresentation of women in STEM education and careers, there are now countless opportunities for women who decide to pursue the fields, including the AAUW. Others are the National Girls Collaborative Project and the W4 Network.

“I usually get really depressed about things, like ‘Oh I can’t research,’” Adlakha said. “It’s my father’s positive attitude that takes me forward — my family is really dear to me, and it’s all because of them.”

Listen to the full interview with Adlakha here