Overcoming barriers in STEM fields

Think of all the technology that sits around at home, the electric tools that fix cars the medicine that keeps the immune system healthy.

All these things come from some level of work in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics, and gift us with the convenience and accessibility in our lives.

Over the years, there has been an increase in the amount of women in STEM fields. Among them is Melani Plett, the current Director of Engineering and Computer Science Programs, who has been teaching at SPU for 21 years.

She says that her inspiration to explore STEM, and engineering specifically, came from her early interest in math.

In elementary school, she started going to computer camps, which was around the time they were first starting up. In sixth grade, she “found out that Electrical Engineering used the math, and it taught you what was going on inside the computers.”

Still, this area of study was quite new to her, as she says, “I didn’t know any engineers,” and her parents had no idea what it was.

“I went off to college to study electrical engineering having very little idea what it was, and not knowing anyone who was an electrical engineer,” she continued.

Associate Professor of Biology, Charlotte Pratt, tells a similar story about the process of finding female mentors she could model her career and life after.

“When I was in school, through graduate school and post-doctoral fellowship, there were almost no female role models. And I should point out there were zero people of color,” she said.

Her main influence became her mother, a high school Biology teacher.

Pratt remembers that her mother always wanted to go to medical school but could not after her first child; she instead expected to stay home.

“I think that I may have taken some of her frustration to heart in the fact that she always felt that she could’ve gone to medical school or she could have had a career, or she could have kept teaching,” Pratt explained. “So I always felt like there were things she could have done, but wasn’t able to because of circumstances. And so I think I internalized some of that and I thought, well, I can do that. And of course I always loved science, so there was never any question of what I would be doing.”

Second year ecology major, Bella Solano, shared that her motivation while studying ecology comes from her own curiosity and the excitement made in discoveries.

“Science is purely people trying to discover how things work, and the relationships between things and especially in the environment, its all just one big thing that fits together perfectly,” she explained.

With curisority in STEM, comes the noticeable amount of eyebrows raised by our World’s culture; especially since as this field has been male dominated in academics for a long time.

Robin O’Leary, a professor of mathematics, did not have a female math teacher until she was in graduate school. But this did not persuade her to let her interest in math fizzle out.

“Because my mother taught high school chemistry, I knew that being in math was normal,” she said.

O’Leary mentioned that the encouragement she received from family was not typical and especially not a normal thing other female colleagues of hers could identify with while they sought an education in math or science.

Pratt said that her work in graduate school was difficult in itself, but the added societal pressures from relatives made earning her PDH even more strenuous.

It was assumed that she could easily take “a couple classes” and raise her children without a hiccup, yet the balance of graduate school did not allow for such a smooth rhythm as relatives thought.

“It is pretty difficult to have a career as an academic scientist while you’re raising a family,” she said.“The professional family balance equation is really hard to figure out.”

Raising a family is not as challenging as it once was, compared to the 80’s, because there is more accessibility to daycares, which were not available to Pratt when she was in the middle of earning her PHD.

These professors had a lot of interesting stories to share about what it was like to be one of only two women in their classes, which were fully immersed in male faculty and students.  

Plett remembers college at SPU and the study groups she was in.

“We’d be studying in the dorms, and the floor hours would come up and I’d have to leave, but everyone else didn’t,” she explained.

Her classes were almost always exclusively filled with men, making her known to everyone as the only girl in class.

Her presence at study tables was welcomed, but once floor hours struck, she was forced to leave and study away from her male counterparts.

“But it didn’t impact them because I had to leave and they didn’t,” she continued.

Pratt recalls her years of study as a time of never ending trials.

“When I was a postdoctoral fellow, there were a few more women, there was one particularly senior woman who went around telling people that you could either have a family or be a good scientist, but there was no way you could do both. And that was a pretty popular conception. That’s what people thought at that time,” she said.

Plett shared that her youthful appearance had a hand in the way that people treated her; often times assuming she was less knowledgeable or even the wife of the actual engineer.

“There were times, just by appearances, that I didn’t look the part. It might have limited some networking, but once someone would get to know me, I felt the full respect, it was just more of an initial look,” she explained.

Sharing the customs and assumptions that surrounded women in STEM, which limited their abilities professionally and domestically, Pratt shared that the hardest part of being a woman in STEM was mastering the career and family agenda.

Plett continued, remembering a time when she was at an engineering conference and was skipped over because the speaker thought she didn’t have a question.

“It happened once. I was at a conference. I was in line to ask a question of the speaker after the talk. I waited in line, it was my turn, he looked over me and asked the person behind me,” she described.

She did get to ask her question though, and shared that she immediately interjected upon being skipped over.

“Now that I’m older and I’m getting some grey hairs, I feel like I get more respect automatically, but when I was younger, I looked young, and I was female, and I was an engineer, and I felt overlooked sometimes,” she said.“I haven’t had any intentional discrimination but I think, sometimes, I just think I didn’t look the part.”

Ecology major Bella Solano says that she has not faced out-right discrimination because she is a woman studying one of the sciences, but if she ever did, it would be shrugged off as absurd.

“I feel like the whole idea of women in STEM is just interesting to me because I grew up very academic, at least in my childhood, and I was very excited in math and environmental science and science in general, and so I feel like the whole ‘issue’ of women in STEM, didn’t come to mind until after I got to college and had peaked my interest,” she explained. “And I didnt realize the magnitude of how little women are in STEM, and the disadvantages and the skewness of it all.”

Senior nursing student Holly Mac Farlane, had a much different view on her experiences in the nursing program and in STEM-based courses at SPU.

“A lot of times, when I share with someone that I’m in nursing school, the general response communicates a sense of respect for the field. In other cultures though, nursing is considered a lower-rung profession,” she said.

While she has known other students to doubt the usefulness of nursing by itself, and desire a higher education or doctorates in nurse practitioning, this has never swayed Mac Farlane away from her initial passion and pursuit of getting her bachelors in nursing alone.

Plett shared that the biggest difference between female and male engineers is the way they answer questions and solve problems, which is why it is so important to have both sexes present in the field.

“I think a lot of the differences are just in the experiences that we bring and the perspectives that we bring. Anyone can be equally good at engineering but we ask different questions and bring different insights,” she explained.

Solano told about her experience at Blakely Island this summer and how it was one of the best educational trips she had taken through SPU so far.

Blakely Island is an island held in the San Juans, owned and used by SPU for the exploration and research of its Ecology majors.

“We’re just trying to figure out the how and why,” she said. “I love to know how the earth works and our relationship to it is really crucial. And I think it’s important that we know how were impacting it.”

Coworkers and colleagues have a huge influence on the atmosphere of every workplace situation that individuals have.  

O’Leary spoke about her colleagues in college, saying, “There weren’t as many female colleagues, and I think that was one of the harder things; just sort of feeling like you stick out, or you’re alone.”

Working in mathematics, a field predominantly populated with men, she said that meetings or classrooms could make it hard to get a word in.

“Sometimes people don’t hear you when you speak,” explained O’Leary on being the only woman in a meeting.

She went on to say that in certain situations with men, “you offer some solution or idea to the group, and it just sort of goes by, until someone, some man offers that same idea a little while later, and then everyone responds to it.”  

Small put downs like this, being left out of the study group, skipped in line, and doubted because of pregnancy, add up to making women feel “less sure of yourself,” as O’Leary put it.

Yet the women in STEM at SPU do not let discouragement deter them from pursuing their passion and goals, often “helping the stronger students to find their stride and helping the students that aren’t as prepared to make that transition into being quality engineers, confident engineers,” Plett said.

In agreement, Solano added, “I think I just realized that people are a lot more capable then they’re told and if were going to relate it back to women in STEM. It literally makes no sense, to me, why women shouldn’t be in STEM. People–women are so capable and the fact that we’re marginalized and discouraged has a lot to do with your future.”


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