Center for Public Service Blog

Retaining Women in a STEM Field

Women in STEMBy Danielle Haak, Adjunct Faculty, Legal Studies Program

It's no secret that men and women have yet to gain full equality in the workforce. While, generally speaking, this is an issue in itself, this article looks at a specific field I have personal experience in (and I promise I'll steer clear of Tim Hunt's recent comments on women in science). I recently finished my PhD in a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) field: natural resources and fisheries-a predominantly male field, no doubt. My personal experience in academia was by no means atypical; I faced hurdles that millions of women in STEM fields are familiar with. Breaking into the "Old Boys' Club" is tough, and I don't think I ever really succeeded.

I was raised to believe I could do whatever I wanted, and my parents offered me every opportunity imaginable. When I left for college, I was premed with about 75% of the rest of the freshman class, and this pursuit lasted about one year before I discovered that wildlife ecology was, in fact, a field you could not only major in, but develop a career in! Sold! I officially switched majors and my courses slowly morphed from those taught by an international contingent of men and women in lab coats to those taught by middle-aged Caucasian men in Carhartt jackets (it sounds like a stereotype, but I assure you, it was the truth). This program was incredible and had a lot of overlap with our state's natural resource management agency, which was an invaluable learning experience. However, I noticed that there were even more middle-aged men in all of the leadership positions, despite my university's wildlife program being split down the middle with men and women. Recruiting to the program didn't appear to be the problem, but there was definitely a drastic shift that took place when populating the workforce.

In graduate school, I ended up at a university with a male-to-female student ratio of approximately 8 to 1. The university specializes in engineering and has a notoriously skewed student body. A new state, a new program, a new state agency to work with, but the same gender composition of professionals. Enter a third university for my PhD program, and the trend was identical, but it carried over into the graduate student community as well. Of the 16 graduate students who cycled through the fisheries program during my 4 years, 3 of them were women (including myself). What's more, the state agencies had job offers in the form of postdoctoral researchers or permanent positions for every single one of the men, whether they were looking for a position in the state or not. At the last annual state-wide conference, there were 6 women in a room of about 100 participants.

I have spent a considerable amount of time pondering and debating if natural resources is a field I wish to pursue after spending 12 years earning multiple degrees. Of the handful of women I saw attempting tenure track positions, many of them, quite frankly, struggled. Like myself, many women who continue school without breaks graduate around the age of 30. To pursue a tenure track faculty position (if you're lucky enough to find one), it can take between 3-6 years to achieve the first promotion, easily putting you in your mid to late 30s. If you want kids, you need to get creative and work them around field seasons, teaching, analyzing data, writing, publishing, getting grants, and leading graduate students through the system. Both of my graduate committees contained one woman (each was a new professor when I started), and both had children after about three years, ultimately scaling back on research time considerably. 

How can we change this trend? What is the trigger that causes the gender ratio to change so drastically between school and the job market? Our recruiting tactics are working, with more women earning degrees, but retaining them in field-specific positions appears to be next to impossible. Without role models to emulate, how do we expect future generations of women to power through? How do we break the pattern?

I wish I had answers to these questions, but I was another casualty of the current system. I am currently pursuing employment in the private environmental consulting field rather than with a state agency as previously planned. Natural resources isn't alone-computer science, engineering, mathematics, and physics are other disciplines with heavily skewed workforces. This isn't a new question, and it's gained a fair amount of attention over the years. My reason for writing this blog is to bring it back to the forefront of your mind. Purdue Global has a unique set of adjunct and regular faculty members who truly represent a broad range of fields in both academia and the workforce and have the potential to impact real change. So let's make a difference and do that.

Danielle Haak is an adjunct faculty member at Purdue Global. The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not represent the view of Purdue Global.