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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Despite progress, STEM professions still lack gender representation

Edith Linwood Bush followed in her father’s footsteps, graduating from Tufts University in 1903. She was the head of mathematics at Chelsea High School and principal of Provincetown High School before being appointed as the assistant professor of mathematics at Tufts University in 1922. While this story doesn’t seem to be anything special today, it is one of its kind since, according to the Concise Encyclopedia of Tufts History, this made her the first female professor to teach in the College of Engineering.

One hundred years later, men still dominate the STEM work field, including professorships. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2021, women made up about 50% of the U.S. workforce and still only constituted 27% of STEM-related careers. Similarly, as Yale Scientific reported, “Women make up 34.5% of STEM faculty at academic institutions.” The census also reports that even within the STEM fields, women make up more of the social science, math, life and physical science occupations than in jobs that require computer workers and engineering. While women who hold STEM-related jobs earn more than their non-STEM counterparts, the gender pay gap persists in the STEM world as well.

At Tufts, the faculty is about 49% female and 51% male. In the School of Engineering, this ratio is about 1:2.5, female to male respectively. Tufts began a coeducational program in 1892, 40 years after the university’s founding. However, along with negative responses from faculty, administration and trustees, the president at the time, Frederick Hamilton, was also an opponent of coeducation. Seeking an alternative, in 1910, Jackson College, a separate institution for women as a part of the main university, was born.

Women in STEM followed the stride at Tufts many years later. Aside from Bush in 1922, Kathryn McCarthy was also appointed as a physics professor in 1946; McCarthy also later became the first female provost. Another woman of note is “Mrs. Castendyk,” the university’s first female instructor in the physics department, according to The Tufts Weekly.

In more recent years, Karen Panetta remains a strong female figure in the STEM field at Tufts. She is a professor in the electrical and computer engineering department at Tufts, conducting research to develop more effective algorithms for simulation, modeling, and signal and image processing for biomedical applications. In fact, she is the first woman to receive tenure in the department and the current dean of graduate education.

Her accomplishments were often accompanied by obstacles exacerbated by societal norms and expectations.

“You shouldn’t dress up; you shouldn’t wear makeup,” Panetta said. “I came to class in a hot pink outfit the very first day, … and students didn’t know what to do with me. They thought ‘oh she can’t be a serious engineer because she looks like this.’ So I saw that there were these huge biases against women to act and assimilate. But in the almost 30 years I’ve been at Tufts, I’ve never lectured in pants.”

Panetta overcame many of the stereotypes and stigmas that accompanied her journey to where she is now. She wants to pass these experiences and lessons learned to girls who may still be struggling to combat these gender disparities. She heads a program called the Nerd Girls program, which empowers young girls through media to pursue the fields of science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics.

“Through the Nerd Girls program, which went international, I changed the way nations view the contributions of women in STEM,” Panetta said. “I got to work with different cultures where women weren’t even allowed to be educated and we finally learned to say that by educating women, you’re strengthening the family. … Working on these international projects, I learned … that you couldn’t just project what you think is best on somebody else. You have to meet them where they’re [at].”

Women’s experiences with gender exclusivity can vary due to a myriad of factors such as socioeconomic status, race, ethnicity and more.

According to a 2021 Pew Research Center survey, while Black workers make up 11% of all jobs, they only constitute 9% of STEM jobs. Similarly, while Hispanic workers account for 17% of all jobs, only 8% work in STEM-related careers.

Among women, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2019 detailed that about 66.02% of women in STEM identified as white, while only about 14.58% identified as African American/Black.

In the Tufts School of Engineering, the racial breakdown of women in STEM is as follows: 59% white, 21.3% Asian, 3.3% Black, 1.6% Hispanic, 1.6% multiracial, 9.8% unknown race/ethnicity and 3.3% U.S. nonresident.

Women’s experiences can vary across many demographics. Beyond this, women can simply encounter different environments that cause variations in their experiences with certain obstacles.

While Panetta’s experiences with gender disparities were more explicit, Catherine Freudenreich, biology department chair and professor, encountered and combated more subconscious stereotypes.

“I do think that at each step, there’s always a little bit more difficulty when you’re in the minority when you’re a woman,” she said. “For me, I’m a fairly petite woman, [so] maybe [I] don’t command the same kind of physical presence as some of my male colleagues.” 

She explained that this is not an issue she sees in her current work environment. As she became more established, she gained more respect in her chosen field. Freudenreich continues to bolster her already-strong standing in the department through her extensive research in genetics and molecular biology, focusing on genome instability. However, it was definitely an issue she saw in her younger years while she was just starting out in the scientific world.

Freudenreich also commented on the idea of imposter syndrome, which can cause women to second-guess their abilities.

“[Some women have been] made to feel like [they were recognized] because they were a woman, not because of their actual worth in their field,” she stated.

While women have made great strides throughout history in the fight for equality, there is clearly still a long way to go.

“We’ve excluded 50% of our most valuable resource in the world, which is women,” Panetta said. “Engaging women give such beautiful perspectives and new innovations on any team. … People always say, ‘You are a pioneer.’ But people that know, that have been there and done it know that it is not [about] being a pioneer. It’s [about] being a warrior.”