MSU trail blazers lead the way for women scientists

Imagine walking into a room full of female students 60 years ago and asking them what they wanted to be when they grew up: most would reply with choices like teacher, social worker, secretary or stay-at-home mother. Back then, the workforce was male-dominated and had limited opportunities for female advancement. This is partly due to the fact that employment was often times a precursor to marriage. Just 40 years ago, according to the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL–CIO) Department for Professional Employees, the percentage of women in the U.S. workforce fell shy of 38 percent; today nearly 47 percent of women are employed and working. Although female representation in the workforce is rapidly increasing, there is a noticeable underrepresentation of women in fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, commonly referred to as STEM fields.

The Importance of STEM Women in the Workforce

In the past few decades women have been  stepping into male-dominated fields, adding diversity to the professional workforce. Seeing that women are enrolling into college and universities at a higher rate than men, 57 percent of enrollment according to The National Center for Education Statistics, it is important that women are equally represented in society to stimulate diverse growth and education. As stated by the Office of Science and Technology, “STEM careers offer women the opportunity to engage in some of the most exciting realms of discovery and technological innovation. Increasing opportunities for women in these fields is an important step towards realizing greater economic success and equality for women across the board.”

Women in STEM at MSU

With a total of 3,404 students in 2015, engineering is the largest undergraduate program at MSU after letters and science. “Women in engineering make up 17 percent of our college this fall,” said Christine Foreman, associate dean of student success for the College of Engineering and part time chemical and biology engineering faculty member.

“I know that doesn’t sound like much, but we are actively moving that bar forward. Our hope is to reach at least 25 percent inclusive to international and underrepresented female groups,” Foreman said.

Although women are underrepresented in the STEM workforce, MSU female students and faculty have been breaking barriers and emerging with confidence into the academic world. Sarah Codd, professor in the Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering and head of Engineering Peer Academic Leaders (ePAL), Foreman and Amanda Olsen, graduating senior in mechanical engineering and vice president of the Society of Women Engineers (SWE), shared their personal stories on becoming rising women in STEM. All three women shared a similar craving toward helping others and expressed how this correlated to ending up in STEM positions. “I always loved teaching. Even as a young child I loved teaching others and I found at an early age that math and physics were things I really enjoyed and was good at. I enjoy helping others understand things that are complicated to them but clearer to me,” Codd said. “My job allows me to interact with students on a larger scale, it’s a great job,” Foreman exclaimed.

Physics and math had always come naturally to these women; Olsen described the time she realized she wanted to be in the STEM field: “There was a camp I did in high school that was an online course on the history of NASA. They took the top 10 percent of my class and had us do a week-long camp. This made me realize that I liked engineering and that I wanted to do this.”

Although major improvements have been made to destroy discrimination in the workforce, women continue to face obstacles in the professional world. STEM fields are typically male-dominated and women are greatly underrepresented. Despite this setback, these three women have managed to push through gender barriers and surround themselves with supportive MSU students and faculty. Codd recognizes that there have not been many women at her level in the STEM fields but does not let that stop her. “If anything, I’ve always wondered why more women aren’t doing this because it’s great; I’m having a good time.” Because women make up 17 percent of engineering students at MSU, female students often times find themselves the only female in the room. STEM female involvement has improved for MSU and Foreman could not be more thrilled, “MSU is doing a great job of making cultural change. It is important to recognize that bringing diverse voices to the table helps all of us. I feel really lucky to be here,” Foreman expressed. However, “I’ve been the only girl in the lab before and now I’m just used to it. It’s empowering and has its perks,” Olsen laughed.

Because STEM fields tend to be male-dominated and socially deemed “masculine,” it is common for women to feel reluctant about joining said fields. Foreman, Codd and Olsen encourage all women who are interested in STEM fields to join: “Persevere. As women, we tend to disregard our skills and think that we can’t do it. Be able to trust yourself and find a community that will support you,” Foreman said. Codd encourages reluctant women to “let us know. We have loads of programs to support women in STEM and plenty of girls in their junior and senior years who would be happy to sit down and talk about if it’s a good fit.” Codd, Foreman and Olsen continue to use their positions to encourage all women to succeed in STEM fields and as Foreman expresses, “There are great challenges out there that can be fixed with STEM fields, challenge yourself and find others that value and support you.”

Codd was recently recognized as the MSU Women in Science Distinguished Professor and has been researching the movement of liquid systems using MRI techniques for over 20 years. Codd also helps run the ePAL program and continues to support the growth and success of women in STEM. Foreman is currently researching biological systems, specifically what lives in cold temperature environments. Foreman gives full support to MSU women and continues to act as a role model to her students and peers. Olsen is currently a graduating senior in mechanical engineering and serves as the vice president of SWE. Olsen hopes to one day see women occupying half the positions in STEM fields.\

Addressing the Pay Gap

As stated by The American Association of University Women, “gender pay discrimination isn’t a myth, it’s math.” Unequal pay for equal work is an issue across most professional fields including high-paying STEM jobs. Even though the wage gap is the smallest it has ever been, women are still struggling to gain equity in the workforce. According to the American Community Survey, women in engineering are only paid 82 percent of what their male colleagues makes and  in computing, only 87 percent. According to the Office of Science and Technology, although “women are becoming more achievement oriented than men,” women have made major economic progress but their paychecks do not embody their accomplishments.

So what is to be done about closing the gap? Although there is no precise answer to achieve pay-equality at the moment, changing workplace culture is a step in the right direction.