OLLI and UNCA presents lecture series on gender barriers in STEM

By Raymond Brewer-Posey

Opinion Staff Writer

rbrewerp@unca.edu

 

Starting a career and even getting an education in STEM generally proves more difficult for women due to an implicit gender bias, said guest speakers at the “Women in STEM” lecture series at UNC Asheville.

Historically, STEM fields have been male-dominated professions and still continue to be.

“Even today, in an enlightened era, women still face many challenges which are not only discouraging to them, but also a great loss to America,” said Howard Jaslow, coordinator of the lecture series.

The obstacles for women begin in college and highlight the gender bias favoring male students, and later on, male coworkers.

A double-blind study presented at the lecture emphasized the gender bias existing at the college level among educators. In the study, college faculty members were asked to rate students on their readiness for graduate school. Results showed both male and female faculty rated male students as more qualified even though students of both genders showed the same competencies.

“It was clear that boys were encouraged to pursue graduate work,” said Joan C. Kaplan, retired biochemist. “We were meant to study Latin and French and go into the humanities in college.”

While generally more acceptable for women now opposed to the past, STEM fields, Kaplan said, still do not give equal chances.

Women account for half of the total college-educated workforce, but make up only 29 percent of the STEM workforce, according to the National Girls Collaborative Project. Many factors may contribute to this discrepancy, however, this statistic provides evidence of a need to encourage and support women in STEM.

Marketing techniques emphasizing the cooperative nature of science are being used to increase female participation in STEM at Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College, where female enrollment has increased from 39 to 75 students. Appealing to qualities that are not usually associated with a career in technology has increased female involvement, said Pamela Silvers, who headed this marketing effort at A-B Tech.

However, entering the field is not the last hurdle for women in the sciences.

“With the same level of education, women make significantly less than men in STEM fields,” said Katherine Greenberg, research ecologist at Bent Creek Experimental Forest.

This lecture was the first in the Women in STEM series hosted at UNCA in the Reuter Center running through Nov. 2. The series will explore gender issues in STEM disciplines ranging from chemistry to computer science.  

The Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, a campus-based community learning society, organized the series that will focus on the contributions of women in STEM and the continuing struggles women encounter in the sciences.

When considering only the highest degree holders in STEM, women earn 31.2 percent less than men with a median salary of $55,000,  while men with the same qualifications earn $80,000, reports a study conducted by the National Science Foundation in 2013.

“Women seeking careers in the STEM fields need to be aware of the obstacles and biases to which women are subject and, of course, how to overcome them and to learn of those many women who have made significant contributions in these areas,” said Jaslow.

The upcoming lectures focus on specific disciplines within STEM. Each lecture will be conducted by a female professional in the field of focus. The next lecture will be given by Assistant Professor of Physics Britt Lundgren on Oct. 5 and will focus on astronomy.

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