Alumni & Donors

Face for the Future: Advancing Women in STEM

5 Women standing around a table

A long line of young women — and a few young men — stream outside the Bissinger Room one blustery March evening, waiting to share a meal, to network, and to receive some hard-won wisdom from professional women in STEM.

It is one of the largest networking events of its kind in recent memory for Stevens’ Society of Women Engineers (SWE), and SWE President Dhivya Shankar ’19 looks excited, and determined.

The evening goes better than she could have imagined. Some 65 women, many of them alumnae, discuss their career paths and exchange advice and business cards with students who aren’t afraid to pepper them with questions — or ask for a job. These engineers and scientists are so enthusiastic to help that they slightly outnumber the students.

Alejandra Guerra ’12, a project engineer with Thornton Tomasetti, an international engineering firm, wished she’d had more opportunities like these to connect with professional women when she was a student. Now, she wants to be there for these Stevens women. She’s advising a senior design team and returning to campus to speak of her journey.

“The industry is lacking in women, but it’s getting better,” she says. “Seeing me come back to Stevens, it will be more encouraging for them.”

She longs to see more women leaders in her field, acknowledging gains but continuing challenges.

“It was hard going to construction fields and meetings and being the only woman and the youngest as well,” she says.

A look at the numbers

Women make up the majority of college students in the United States, but when it comes to certain STEM fields, especially engineering and computer science, a stubborn gender gap persists both at the university level and in the work force. What is perplexing is that women are reaching parity in medical, law and business schools.

According to the 2017 Engineering By the Numbers, an annual report issued by the American Society for Engineering Education, women received 21.3% of U.S. engineering bachelor’s degrees, 25.7% of U.S. engineering master’s degrees and 23.5% of U.S. engineering doctoral degrees in 2017. Women also only earned about 19% of U.S. undergraduate computer science and information sciences degrees in 2016, according to the National Center for Women and Information Technology.

Meanwhile, the number of women working in engineering and computing fields has remained low, with women now making up 26% of computer scientists and 13% of engineers, according to SWE.

Overall for STEM fields, according to 2015-16 statistics from the National Center for Education Statistics, women accounted for 57 percent of all bachelor’s degrees awarded but earned only 32 percent of the STEM degrees. Currently, women make up less than a quarter of the STEM workforce, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.

Stevens has seen its overall percentage of undergraduate women remain more or less flat over the past five years, hovering between 28% and 30%, currently at 29 percent. But the number of undergraduate women on campus has grown during this time, from 760 to 1,009, as overall enrollment has grown. Undergraduate women make up 28% of the School of Engineering and Science, 32% of the School of Systems and Enterprises, 32% of the School of Business and 42% of the College of Arts and Letters. Stevens women earned 29 % of the engineering bachelor’s degrees in 2017, above the national average of 21.3 %.

Stevens shines in its percentage of women earning engineering doctoral degrees. In 2017, 35% of Stevens’ engineering doctoral degrees went to women; 17 women, from a total of 48 students, earned Ph.D.s, well above the national average of 23.5%. (In 2018, this Stevens number increased to 49 %.)

In light of these numbers, Stevens women are determined to connect with each other, to make a difference and to combat the national gender gap in STEM.

The national view

Experts cite a variety of reasons for this gender gap, including gender bias through which women are discouraged from entering or staying in these fields; the need for more women role models; the all-boys network of some STEM professions and a less welcoming workplace climate. Also, there is a lack of understanding among the public – parents, teachers, guidance counselors and students – about the wide diversity of careers available in STEM.

The gender gap, “is systemic, it’s a national problem,” says Deborah Vagins, senior vice president for public policy and research with the American Association of University Women. “Gender bias still persists in all areas of education,” and is contributing to the STEM gender gap.

These biases can manifest themselves as teachers being less encouraging of female students in math and science classes. Even young women studying STEM subjects in graduate school or working in these fields can be discouraged if they face sexual harassment or a work environment that doesn’t support families with children, Vagins says.

“There’s no one solution. Obviously, more can be done to support and make it comfortable for students (and professors),” Vagins says, from more women role models in STEM, to gender bias awareness training and teaching all students that STEM skills are learned and not innate.

“Understanding how climate (academic or workplace environment) can push out women is really important,” Vagins says.

Sometimes, just the way you talk to young women about STEM fields can make all the difference, says national SWE president Penny Wirsing.

“I talk about how engineering is solving problems and saving the world, to make it a better place. That’s something that girls can get behind,” Wirsing says.

“Making the world’s water and air safer appeals to them.”

Wirsing also emphasizes the need for STEM role models who are women, so young women see what is possible.

Despite many challenges, both Wirsing and Vagins see a reason for optimism. The STEM gender gap is more in the public consciousness, with more organizations focusing on the issue, Vagins says.

“I personally feel very positive,” Wirsing says. “I also feel there’s much work to be done.”

A grassroots movement

At Stevens, a variety of programs and activities across campus connect women to each other. Most remarkably, there’s a grassroots movement among Stevens women –students and faculty alike – to inspire younger women to enter STEM fields.

This April, Stevens’ SWE hosted its second Stevens “STARTS” event, which brought together 22 student organizations to do hands-on STEM activities with close to 100 local children. Last year, SWE received an award from the national organization for its efforts.

For the past four years, Stevens mechanical engineering professor Maxine Fontaine has visited the Joseph Brensinger Elementary School in Jersey City for “Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day.” Earlier this year, Fontaine, professor Leslie Brunell ’86 M.S. ’90 Ph.D. ’96 and several students spoke with 200 fifth-through eighth grade girls about various careers in engineering as well as their own personal journeys.

Computer science professor Adriana Compagnoni, a longtime advocate for women at Stevens, teaches “Coding for Moms and Other Grown-ups’’ at the Maplewood Memorial Library in New Jersey.

Chemical engineering Professor Stephanie Lee, a well-known Stevens mentor, has visited a local school, mentored special needs children and brought a local Girl Scout troop to campus to spark young girls’ interest in STEM fields.

Meanwhile, this past spring, some 250 high school girls converged on Castle Point to learn about business and STEM careers, meet Stevens students and professional women and compete in team-building exercises, during an event co-sponsored by Stevens’ School of Business and Junior Achievement of New Jersey. Women from Eli Lilli and Company, Sanofi, Deloitte & Touche and Stevens spoke openly about their challenges and triumphs in STEM and the business world.

This event, in its fourth year, is part of the business school’s strategy to increase its number of women and underserved students, says Professor Ann Murphy, one of the day’s organizers. But it was much more than that.

“First and foremost, it was our interest in educating young women and helping them develop confidence and feel that they have a number of career options,” Murphy says. “It’s a chance to learn from others, from successful women.”

Her hope for these young women? “That they feel optimistic about their future, and motivated to work hard in school.”

Creating a community

A number of Stevens women students interviewed say they would like to see more women in the university’s faculty. Currently, women make up 25% of the full-time overall faculty body (tenured, tenure-track and non-tenure track), a number that has grown over the past five years. Competition for outstanding women faculty in STEM is fierce, says Susan Metz, Stevens’ executive director of diversity and inclusion, and it is a challenge shared by many universities.

With more women faculty, “it would give me more reassurance for what I am doing,” says Kristy Chan, a Stevens junior majoring in chemical engineering. “It would be helpful to hear from the other side — what it’s like to be in STEM.”

Experts have pointed to the importance of women role models and mentorship for women in STEM, so the Stevens chapter of SWE offers a student-to-student mentoring program. Some women students have formed mentoring relationships with both male and female professors. For faculty, Stevens' School of Business operates a faculty mentoring program, and a university-wide faculty mentor pool was also created several years ago to help foster these important relationships between junior and more senior faculty.

“Women at Stevens are looking to build community with other women,” says Sara Klein, Stevens' assistant vice president for student affairs.

“When they come to Stevens, they see that they are the minority and seek out other women to build a support system.”

Women connect with one another in a number of ways, from sororities, sports teams and women’s professional societies to activities of the university's Lore-El Center for Women’s Leadership, home to 14 upperclass women and a robust program of events focused on professional development, health and wellness, arts and culture and social outings.

“Women are very involved in campus life,” Klein says. “They are confident, intelligent and ambitious. They always manage to achieve and succeed at Stevens.”

With women making up 29 % of the graduate program, Stevens’ Office of Graduate Student Affairs offers programs throughout the year for graduate women, faculty and staff. Events have ranged from a monthly “Lunch & Learn” series that focused on topics like health and finances; networking nights; and student sponsorship for the SkillPath professional development conference.

Experts also note the need for young women to see more women role models in STEM leadership roles, and this process is gradually happening at Stevens.

In 2017, Jean Zu became the first woman in Stevens history to lead the School of Engineering and Science. Professor Darinka Dentcheva recently became the first woman to chair Stevens' Department of Mathematics, and professor K.P. “Suba” Subbalakshmi leads the high-profile Stevens Institute for Artificial Intelligence, launched last year. Victoria Velasco ’04 is president of the Stevens Alumni Association, the third woman to serve in this position.

The National Science Foundation has awarded its prestigious CAREER Awards to a number of women faculty researchers, as well, including professors Samantha Kleinberg, Negar Tavassolian, Wendy Wang and Stephanie Lee.

Women ascending to academic leadership roles have not gone unnoticed by Stevens' women students.

“I’ve always admired her,” says Elena Malova, a junior math major, when speaking about Dentcheva. “She’s very inspiring to me.”

On campus today — and across the country — more organizations devoted to young women in STEM have also been created in recent years.

At Stevens, affinity groups include Stevens Women in Computer Science, Stevens Women in Business, Women in Systems Engineering and, of course, the long-standing SWE.

Student reflections

Several women who live at Lore-El agreed that the experience has allowed them to better connect with women and advocate for each other.

“For me, living at the Lore-El Center has allowed me to surround myself with strong, ambitious women who are not only dedicated to making Stevens a better place for their colleagues, but also to having open discussions about what it's like to be a woman on campus,” says Shankar, the SWE president at Stevens.

One of the most striking things about several of these women of Lore-El: They can all point toward someone who served as a role model when they were very young, someone who gave them the confidence that they could succeed in STEM fields — their parents, a cousin who was an engineer, a high school physics teacher.

Jennifer Searing, a sophomore quantitative finance major, is the daughter of two mechanical engineers who was always urged to pursue her love of math. In school, she learned about great women scientists and researchers like Rachel Carson and Jane Goodall. But she would like to see more women in her classes, where she is one of eight women in her class of 50. Occasionally, she feels like she has to do more to be seen on the level of her male peers in class, she says.

“Sometimes, I feel that I have to participate extra, on behalf of women,” she says.

Shankar, a mechanical engineering major, also has mostly male classmates and recalls one class when she was the only woman. With no one to study with, she didn’t do as well. When she had a class with more women, she did exceedingly better.

Success on campus — and beyond

One fact is unmistakable: Once they’re here, Stevens women achieve remarkable success during their college careers and after graduation. Indeed, recent statistics that measure the success of undergraduate students are stellar for Stevens' women graduates.

Among Stevens’ undergraduate women, according to the university’s Fall 2018 Census, there is an incredible 96% retention rate after freshman year. The six-year graduation rate for the 2012 entering cohort of undergraduate women was 89%. And, for the Class of 2018, 97% of undergraduate women secured their career plans (employment or graduate school) within six months of Commencement.

Indeed, undergraduate women at Stevens have slightly outshined Stevens men in the above categories. Last year, research published in Forbes discovered that Stevens women ranked No. 2 in the nation for most equitable gender gap in pay among recent women and men graduates. In fact, Stevens women slightly out-earned the men post-graduation.

Stevens women do so well for many of the same reasons that male graduates do, says Lynn Insley, the longtime executive director of the Stevens Career Center: their talent and work ethic; the broad-based technical education they receive; the senior design experience; the greater chance to take on activities and leadership roles on the small campus; co-op and internship experiences.

But with many Stevens women, there’s also a shared bond that propels them, Insley adds.

“Stevens women are loyal to each other,” Insley says. “Most importantly, it’s the women themselves, supporting each other, and proud of each other’s accomplishments.”

Improving the environment for women

If you walk around the Stevens campus today, you will see more women, as overall undergraduate enrollment (and the number of women enrolled) has increased over the past five years, as part of Stevens’ strategic plan. But the proportion of women has remained the same.

Competition across the country for talented women in STEM is simply fierce, says Jacqueline Williams, Stevens’ dean of undergraduate admissions.

“It’s a small pool of women overall, and they have many, many options,” says Susan Gross, assistant vice president for financial aid and undergraduate admissions.

During campus tours with perspective students, the Admissions Office places an emphasis on the Lore-El Center and the success of women in STEM at Stevens. Many undergraduate women serve as tour guides, meet with students, serve on panels and answer questions, Williams and Gross say.

Stevens’ strategic plan sets a goal of 35 percent undergraduate women by 2022. One initiative planned to help reach that goal is more outreach with organizations that focus on women in STEM, both bringing them to campus and meeting with them during recruiting efforts across the country.

Meanwhile, the university is taking a number of steps to try to increase the number of women faculty, to reduce gender bias through professional development and to improve the academic climate for women on campus. Stevens’ ADVANCE grant from the National Science Foundation has been helping to support some of these efforts.

It is challenging to hire women STEM faculty, and traditional recruitment practices are typically unsuccessful, Metz says.

“Recruiting women faculty takes commitment and persistence. It’s important to take a long-term view and build relationships with potential candidates over time — similar to strategies that coaches use to recruit top athletes,” Metz says.

Kim Barletta, director of Stevens’ Center for Faculty Engagement and Advancement, shares “Tips of the Week” with faculty on topics ranging from unconscious bias to creating inclusive classrooms and integrating diverse examples in their teaching. Undergraduate students met with Stevens President Nariman Farvardin last year to press the need for inclusive classroom training for faculty. Now, online courses on the subject are offered for all faculty and teaching assistants.

Bringing in a more diverse faculty is especially important to increasing the number of students in computer science who are women, says professor Giuseppe Ateniese, chair of Stevens’ Department of Computer Science. In his department, where only five of 25 faculty are women, he has been working to recruit more female faculty, though competition to hire these women can be intense among universities.

“The role model approach is something that works,” he says, emphatically. “If you hire top women faculty, this is incredibly beneficial. When students see faculty that look like them doing research and teaching, they get inspired and are more likely to succeed. They see it as feasible and possible.”

Undergraduate applications from women wanting to study computer science were up this spring, and Ateniese says that he’s hopeful that Stevens will enroll more young women in the major this fall.

Why diversity matters

“There is a rigorous body of research supporting the value of diversity in creating a more innovative, stimulating and thought-provoking educational experience,” says Metz. “Education and research is enriched by diversity defined in the broadest sense — people with different perspectives, disciplinary expertise, and demographic backgrounds enhance the experience.”

“We know that diversity of ideas leads to better solutions,” adds Wirsing of SWE, who wonders why we’d discourage half the population from coming up with solutions to urgent societal problems. “It’s critical that we succeed. If you have all people who think alike sitting around the table, you will get one set of solutions.”

AAUW’s Vagins agrees. “It’s the right thing to do — not eliminating a talented pool of candidates. It’s better for the economy, it’s better for America.”

Women students see more women on campus as a way of not only building a greater sense of belonging but also offering a richer college experience for everyone.

“You don’t grow by talking to people who think like you,” Shankar says.

Shankar will join BASF this fall, working with its Engineering Professional Development Program for promising leaders. And she will continue to be involved with SWE — to lift up other young women in STEM.