Women in STEM create nurturing environments, student org support
UC Davis was ranked number one for launching women into science, technology, engineering and mathematics careers and has proven successful in providing a nurturing environment for STEM success. However, just a generation ago, the presence of women in STEM had completely different ratios across the country in higher education, and the progress we see today is the fruit of many magnitudes of effort and the tenacity of some brave women.
LeShelle May, a two-time Computerworld Smithsonian award winner and the wife of Chancellor Gary May, is a pioneer woman of color in STEM who entered the field of information technology at a time when the internet didn’t exist, and neither did many female engineers. She earned a degree in electrical engineering from Boston University and went on to study operations research in graduate school at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Behind her success lies passion, grit and the gumption to navigate a path where she was one of the first.
“Back then it was low-level software,” May said. “It wasn’t the platforms we have now and all the cool stuff. My first job out of graduate school, I was developing some software — just remember […] in 1989 when I got a graduate degree, the internet hadn’t launched yet.”
May was hired at CNN to launch CNN.com, a project she described as “digitizing the newsroom.” She was there to help construct and kickstart their internet. The powerful tool they created is called “media source” — it’s still in production today and won CNN a Technology and Pioneering Emmy Award in 2000.
“When I joined CNN, they hired me knowing I was pregnant, so that’s how much they had invested interest in me,” May said. “In a nutshell, I’m still with CNN and I build web applications. That’s my world — software. I know every language, every platform, every database.”
When May was an undergrad at BU, she didn’t find much diversity in color or gender in the engineering field. In retrospect, she finds that she lacked a group of people to study with and didn’t have the kind of collaborative efforts she observes between students today. She joined the National Society of Black Engineers, but unfortunately her local chapter didn’t have a lot of members. Regardless of these challenges, May loved her field of study and knew she wanted to stay in it.
“As a woman in this field, I was the only developer for a long time,” May said. “Male, period. This gave me confidence that I was one of the first, but as the company grew in the IT area, I’ve come to realize that there weren’t that many women, so I took initiative and started to pair with some universities, [and] we started to hire a lot of [women]. The numbers are higher now. So I changed the landscape there personally, and I think a lot of women are doing that now. They are taking personal initiative to add their own diversity in their own environment.”
Fast forwarding to present-day academia, college campuses across the country have many more resource centers and student organizations aimed at supporting and uplifting women into STEM fields. Here at UC Davis, two students, Ashmita Chakraborty and Anita Gunaseelan began an undergraduate chapter of the American Medical Women’s Association (AMWA), aimed at recruiting and supporting aspiring women physicians, and in turn, providing services to women and children in need. Some of their events include panels with medical students and various doctors to allow students to get a better idea of the medical field and how to navigate it. They also help connect students to mentors and even made a field trip to the UC Davis School of Medicine last spring.
“It’s really nice, because I feel like here [at Davis] I can talk about having a feminine product drive, and people aren’t [disrespectful of] that,” said Gunaseelan, a fourth-year neurobiology, physiology and behavior major. “It’s very accepting here, and I know that somewhere else in the country that might not be the case, so we’re really lucky to be in that kind of environment where it’s not going to be an issue.”
Laila Hassen, a fifth-year civil and environmental engineering major and president of the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) at Davis, described how SWE creates a “SWE-ster hood” that helps the retention of women in STEM and specifically engineering.
“We currently have over 200 members,” Hassen said. “We try to focus on our core values of advancing, inspiring and allowing women to achieve their goals, be that professional, career, academic or even social goals.”
Hassen emphasized the necessity for a support system in order to persevere through tough times in this challenging field.
“I think SWE is probably one of the biggest influences on whether or not a woman stays in engineering in college, or STEM in general,” Hassen said. “If we don’t keep engaging them or help them out and follow up, we can be the difference [between] whether or not they stay in engineering. A lot of our members, including myself, are first-generation Americans, [and\or] first-generation college students, so it’s not like we have a lot of family or prior experience we can rely on. By having SWE, we [gain] that support network.”
Hassen found that there are many setbacks academically and socially when pursuing these rigorous fields, but passion and determination make the four or five years of this study feel shorter.
“There’s always going to be sexism, there’s always going to be racism, there’s going to be all those ‘-isms,’” Hassen said. “But despite that, it’s focusing on what really matters — this inherent belief that as women in engineering we can change the world. As cliche as that might sound, there’s a lot of us that still think it’s true.”
Although there has been much progress since the time when May entered the field in the 1980s, many of the issues from that time persist. Hassen mentioned that she has been in physics classes where out of 150 students, about 10 were female. Although she has had good experiences in her engineering classes, she has faced sexism from a math professor before, and has felt undermined in another STEM class. But she also brought up the fact that much of the time, the inherent bias society harbors is so deeply rooted that people may sound undermining or sexist without even realizing that they do. In these situations, Hassen advises a non-confrontational conversation to elucidate the fact that words hurt, whether intended or not.
Hassen also added that being a woman in STEM may insinuate being part of a specific category or a certain “type of person,” creating a bias in and of itself. As Hassen expressed, a woman shouldn’t have to feel pressured to choose between her “femininity” and what is often perceived as “masculinity.”
“It’s still okay to embrace your femininity if that’s what you are,” Hassen said. “You don’t have to sacrifice one or the other. It’s less about enforcing gender roles or trying to fit a model [and] really just letting people do what they want to do and embrace it. If you want to play with Barbies and dress up and play with Legos — all power to you. Why should we have to be one thing? Why can’t we be everything? Why can’t we be well-rounded?”
Moving forward and uplifting women, however, doesn’t exclude or overlook the involvement of men and their very much necessary contributions in creating a nurturing environment.
“I think we really move forward best when we have everybody on our side,” Hassen said. “We have a T-shirt that says: It’s not a boy’s game, it’s not a girl’s game, it’s everyone’s game.”
Written by: Sahiti Vemula — firstname.lastname@example.org