I have been asking myself since elementary school: Why are there so few women in science, technology, engineering, and math? Women and non-binary people do not get enough support and encouragement from their peers, institutions, and communities. I believe that we should inspire more young women and non-binary people to pursue careers in science by sharing our stories, and this is my story and the story of the Society of Womxn Engineers at Swarthmore College.
Even without fully realizing which exact field I wanted to pursue, I always have been fascinated by numbers, calculations, and most of all, building. While I was growing up, I loved watching the cartoon show “Bob the Builder,” collecting tools to help my family repair broken objects around the house, constructing things from scratch, and assembling old and new furniture. I had no female model to refer to, however, in both the media and at school. I was disappointed by the lack of female builders in TV and real life, and I kept asking: Why so few women? During middle school and high school, in the hopes of finding answers to this same question, I started to research this issue with excitement and bewilderment. I read about the terrific contributions made by women in the sciences across both the West and the East, starting from the nineteenth century, including discoveries during WWII (on plutonium) as well as Nobel Prize recipients in chemistry in the late 60s and in medicine in the 80s. Nora Stanton Blatch Barney was the first woman to receive a degree in civil engineering from Cornell University in 1905, for example, and Rita Levi Montalcini was an Italian Nobel laureate, honored for her work in neurobiology and the discovery of nerve growth factor in 1986.
Ever since I decided to pursue engineering during my first year at Swarthmore, I have felt a sense of community, diversity, and inclusiveness within the department. During the first introductory courses, the Engineering faculty and administrators do an excellent job in ensuring that no student is left behind, as well as comforting first years if they feel discouraged from the frustration of transitioning into college. Yet, I was struck by the lack of women in the sciences both within the college at large and within the engineering department itself. Only three out of the eleven professors in the engineering department are female and only two are people of color. Consequently, these demographics may deter female students and people of color from staying within the department. Therefore, I wanted to connect with other women, especially women of color, and non-binary people in S.T.E.M. and increase representation on campus. For this specific reason, I joined SWE, where I immediately found a group of supportive, intelligent, and passionate women, who wanted to provide a safe space for underrepresented students in engineering. At that time, however, the club held just a few events and membership was dwindling. During the end of my sophomore year (Spring 2019), I was thrilled and honored to become the president of the club. In accepting this role, my goal was to revamp the club and garner more interest and visibility across the campus with peers and faculty members.
As a consequence, the other officers and I decided to open the club to not just women and non-binary people in engineering, but to all women and non-binary people in S.T.E.M. and students wishing to create an inclusive community in order to bring diversity and gender parity to the field of engineering. We are also striving to bring learning, networking, and advancement opportunities through our events, activities, and knowledge and connections of our members.
During my time as an officer, we have organized numerous successful events including the engineering Olympics, a 3D printing and laser engraving workshop in the MakerSpace, and a trip to the Philadelphia Mini Maker Faire for those interested in crafts, tech, DIYs, and hands-on activities. I also created a website, which offers general information about our mission, officers, resources, future and past events, and a gallery of photos that I took. For the conclusion of this semester we have planned a research and internship panel in conjunction with the engineering department faculty, who have been extremely supportive of our initiative. We also have a Major League Hacking local hackathon day in the works, which is a global day-long hack day where students can get hands-on learning experience and collaborate with other participants to bring ideas to life by utilizing tools such as hardware and software. We will also be hosting a resume workshop and a course advising session. We are excited to recruit as many students as possible — our events are open to all students across race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and other identities in order to better maintain retention of people from marginalized backgrounds that often feel discouraged and unwelcome.
The fields of science, technology, engineering, and math remain predominantly male. Women and non-binary people in engineering, and in S.T.E.M. in general, continue to be discriminated against as they face challenges across the globe, including here in the United States. Although these are male-dominated fields, over the past few decades there has been an improvement when it comes to women and non-binary people in medicine, business, and law. It has become more common to see successful female doctors, nurses, lawyers, attorneys, and entrepreneurs. According to the National Science Board, 7.9% of female first years and 26.9% of male first years intended to pursue engineering, math, statistics, or computer science in 2014. Moreover, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in the workforce only 13% of engineers are women. Considering the fact that there has been a greater emphasis on gender equality in recent years, the disparity of women and non-binary people in S.T.E.M. is upsetting and needs to be improved.
If colleges, universities, and S.T.E.M. workplaces implement the changes necessary to accommodate women and non-binary people by providing a positive environment to focus on learning and growing, we would not only see more women and non-binary people interested in pursuing S.T.E.M. careers, but also be able to retain those who often leave the field for lack of support. My hope is to create a space where one can meet lifelong friends, connect with mentors, and launch a career while being connected to a network of women and non-binary people in engineering. By sharing our stories and honoring the legacy of our female heroes, we can encourage more young women, non-binary people, and people of color to pursue a career in science. As president of SWE, my goal is to provide support for marginalized people, specifically non-binary people and women of color, and welcome them into the engineering department.