An unnecessary minority: female underrepresentation in STEM fields
The three of us are fortunate to attend a college where the intellectual climate allows us to express our opinions in an open and public way. For this reason, we intend to share our individual experiences as women majoring in Computer Science and Physics, two of the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) disciplines where women are underrepresented. Both of these disciplines significantly affect our day-to-day lives at Bowdoin and beyond in a world changed every day by science and technology.
While women in STEM are just one type of underrepresentation at Bowdoin, we do not raise the issue of women in these departments as a more important issue than others. Instead, we share our own experiences to bring to light the importance of addressing all types of underrepresentation by using the STEM fields as an example of that profound inequality.
Comparing statistics from the National Science Foundation of women receiving degrees in Math, Computer Science, and Physics to Bowdoin’s Institutional Research/Analytics data about Fall 2014 declared majors and minors, we found that Bowdoin is on par with national statistics. At Bowdoin, 23.5 percent of computer science majors, 32.5 percent of math majors, and 18.8 percent of physics majors are women. According to data from the National Science Foundation, in 2012, 18.2 percent of Computer Science undergraduate degrees were awarded to women. In 2013, 42 percent of Math undergraduate degrees and 19.5 percent of Physics undergraduate degrees were awarded to women. It is important to recognize that with the small size of these three departments at Bowdoin, particularly with Physics, these percentages are subject to large fluctuations. Nevertheless, Bowdoin lines up with national statistics.
Yet what is happening on the ground—in class, in dorms, at dinner—is different. While our experiences have been largely positive in our fields of study at Bowdoin, we have also each experienced the implications of being a gender minority in the classroom. For example, when one of us expressed excitement that we had finished applications for summer research, a male peer responded, “Don’t worry, you’ll get one because you’re a girl.” This is an example of a microaggression, which is “a form of unintended discrimination.” Sentiments like this are expressed to all kinds of minorities both inside and outside of the classroom and have the ability to make students question whether they deserve their place in their field of study. This is important to recognize as a campus. We want to see departments begin conversations to develop healthier cultures, where students of all genders, races, ethnicities, sexualities, and abilities feel that they hold a valuable place.
There is no a clear reason why these microaggressions exist, though discussions to address these issues are taking place nationwide. Bowdoin has consistently been a leader regarding many high profile issues in colleges both socially, as with our hard alcohol and sexual assault policies, and academically, in regards to the Digital and Computational Studies initiative. When we look around our campus, we know how capable each Bowdoin student is. With that in mind, we also know that the Bowdoin community will continue to be a leader for women in STEM. With this piece, we ask you to join us in our work to actively address this underrepresentation.
In discussions with peers and faculty members throughout the last year, we have realized not only how much work has been done, but also how much work is being done behind the scenes to overcome issues of gender inequality. We have found so many members of the community seeking not only to improve the experience for people of all genders at Bowdoin, but also beyond our campus. This great work and related advancement, however, do not change the fact that there is still a minority of women in STEM at Bowdoin. If we all represent Bowdoin and are all working toward the common good, any unnecessary minority must be recognized, and we are bringing a public, student voice to the role of women within that space.
We recognize that women and other minorities in these disciplines have different experiences. Even our own experiences have varied. While some women are not aware of the underrepresentation of women in STEM until explicitly told, others struggle with it regularly. We hope to empower women as members of the College and as members of their respective departments. Seek support in faculty, staff and peers, but also seek support in your own successes—there are certainly many of them.
Maddie Bustamante and Roya Moussapour are members of the Class of 2017. Grace Handler is a member of the Class of 2017 and the Orient’s web editor.