A former metallurgist discusses the gender gap in STEM fields
April 2013 - The acronym STEM represents experience in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Stem often is defined as the main body or stalk of a plant, typically rising above ground, and providing support for the fruit, flowers and leaves. Though these homonyms seem unrelated, stem, in both senses of the word, supports growth and life.
However, for half of the working American population, representation in STEM fields remains low. According to “Women in the Labor Force: A Databook,” published in February by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, women make up 15.2 percent of workers in the primary metals and fabricated metal parts industry. Though tremendous progress has been achieved, the gender gap lingers.
K. Sujata, current president and CEO for the Chicago Foundation for Women and a former metallurgical engineer says girls tend to lose interest in STEM subjects and women in STEM careers tend to leave them. “Girls, by the time they are in the third or fourth grade, seem to be getting these messages from their teachers or peers or family that math is too hard. It’s not for girls; it’s only for nerds. It doesn’t seem glamorous,” she says. “I don’t think we should be giving girls those messages.”
Planting the seeds
A lack of support discourages young girls from pursing STEM. Sujata references “Generation STEM,” a report from the Girl Scout Research Institute that states, “STEM girls have stronger support networks overall in the planning of their careers and futures.” In fact, 76 percent of girls that want to pursue STEM say their parents have pushed them to think about what they want to do when they grow up, compared to 67 percent of non-STEM girls, according to the report.
“I think what happens is sometimes we have counselors [or teachers] in schools who are discouraging or who were not trained properly to include girls,” says Sujata. The Chicago Foundation for Women frequently works with low-income communities, which Sujata says lack role models. “We really think it’s important to have role models, who look like them, who are like them, who can encourage young girls to really see this as a great opportunity.”
Growing up in India, Sujata says her father was extremely supportive of her interest in math. “My parents did not have sons; they made it clear to us that we needed education to ensure we had good careers and we were able to stand on our own two feet,” she says, noting her grandfather was a mathematician, an uncle a physicist and another uncle a metallurgist.
Beyond support at home, in schools and around the community, Sujata says converting textbook knowledge into practical experience is essential. “I always tell people when you learn computer science you shouldn’t just be learning computer programing but sort of use that programming to produce apps and video games and so on. So girls can understand what the use of all this stuff is.”
After high school Sujata knew she loved math, hated biology and wanted to work with her hands, leading her to pursue engineering. She says, “Since I liked inorganic chemistry, metallurgy seemed like the next step. I knew I wanted to be an engineer and not just go into the physical sciences. I wanted to do something that was practical, that I could see and touch, like physics, which is kind of esoteric and in some ways imaginary.”
As the only woman in her college metallurgical class, Sujata says she felt pressured to be better than everybody else. “I always had to study very hard, and I had to do very well. I also became ‘one of the guys.’” The search for employment carried its own specific challenges. “As I started looking for jobs it was really hard for me to convince people that I would be able to do the work,” she says, recalling an interview where she was asked questions “you could never ask today. I really appreciate all the work that has gone on in order to allow women to work in whatever occupation they desire.”
After graduate school, Sujata worked for a cement factory in Gary, Ind. “I was sort of the only woman in management, both in the factory but also across the company there weren’t women engineers,” she says. “There were women in HR and administration across the company but not really women in engineering and in the plant.”
Rich soil, not dirt
A lot has been done to eradicate the stereotype that STEM work is dirty, manually exhausting or too hard for women, but some of that stigma remains. Sujata was one of two or three female students in her graduate class, but today she says, “almost half of that graduating class is women.”
Though more women seem interested in STEM and obtain positions within those fields, Sujata believes career advancement for women in STEM has not progressed. “Women are not getting the opportunities and then even if they get the opportunities somehow they’re not continuing to stay in the field.”
Women may not be able to identify with the perception that manufacturing jobs are repetitive, low-skilled and require significant physical strength. However, highly skilled workers are necessary for modern manufacturing, for which Sujata says women are well-suited.
“I think as technology is moving forward there are more and more complex and complicated things happening, and women are suited to think about these multilayers and multicomputations and sorting out those questions.” She list’s diligence, patience, analytical and problem solving skills, as well as persistence in getting to the root of the question as unique qualities women bring to STEM careers.
A healthy plant
“Advanced manufacturing is a place where women can excel, as well as men. Employers need to have that same outlook to make sure they hire the most skilled workers, whether they’re women or men, as long as they’re skilled,” says Sujata. She and the Chicago Foundation for Women fund training programs for women that include skill building in the trades, like pipe fitting, plumbing, welding and CNC machining.
“Our goal with some of the work that we do, especially around STEM, is that women have the opportunities to achieve economic stability and economic self sufficiency. It’s the jobs in manufacturing and it’s the jobs and skills in STEM that are going to get them there,” she says. “We’re 51 percent of the population. If you forget about women, you’re leaving behind this huge workforce with tremendous capabilities.” MM
Read Sujata’s first hand experience in “Proud to be a STEM girl.”