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The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald


Women feel extra pressure to prove themselves in male-dominated majors

In many STEM classes, female student make up less than 20 percent of classroom, experience microaggressions
Walter Egger

For University of Wisconsin freshman Angela Houghtaling, being one of few girls in her engineering classes is nothing out of the ordinary.

During her engineering class last semester, students worked on a 30-foot manual water pump and were supposed to test it at the end of the semester over a stairwell.

“It was pretty heavy when we were testing it out, it took a lot of force to operate, but we spent the entire semester planning this and designing and building it,” Houghtaling said.


When it came time to test the pump, the professor called each of the male students up but repeatedly overlooked Houghtaling and the only other female student in the class. The professor told the other female student that she was “too small” to operate her pump.

When she’d had enough, Houghtaling told her professor she was going to test the pump next because she had worked just as hard all semester as her male classmates. She ended up beating her professor’s time operating the pump.

“I had to advocate for myself to be able to test my product,” Houghtaling said.

As a biomedical engineering major, Houghtaling is part of a major that has nearly equal numbers of male and female students, with 47 percent of students being women, according to the Office of the Registrar. Still, many of her classes are dominated by men. 

At UW, women make up 25 percent of the College of Engineering, 17 percent of computer science majors and 40 percent of chemistry majors. In some engineering majors, women make up even fewer percentages, such as computer engineering, where women make up just 13 percent of students.

Still, there are some STEM majors where women make up the majority, such as 64 percent of biology and 61 percent of kinesiology.

Anna Larson/The Badger Herald

Though some of the sciences are seeing an increase in women, female students still feel the pressure to prove themselves in fields that men have historically dominated. As different campus groups push for inclusivity and more female representation in STEM fields, the women in these majors each have different outlooks on what it means to be in the minority.  

Microaggressions in the classroom

UW senior and biomedical engineering major Tianna Garcia said she has noticed more microaggressions than outright sexual discrimination in her classes.

“It makes me kind of feel like I’m afraid of making mistakes because people could use that as an example that women aren’t capable.”

Women are often put in positions in which they have to prove themselves to their male colleagues, Garcia said.

“[Male colleagues] don’t right away see me as an equal, whether it’s regarding knowledge or just flat out ability,” Garcia said.

UW sophomore Olivia Li agreed with Garcia’s sentiments regarding the need to prove herself to her male colleagues. As an electrical engineering major, Li is part of just 14 percent of undergraduate women in that major, according to the Office of the Registrar.

Li feels there is a stigma that women in these male-dominated majors are not as capable as men.

While doing a class exercise, a male classmate kept asking Li if she knew how to do the problems and said she was working slow. When their scores came back, she had outperformed him.

During that encounter, Li felt there was more pressure on her as a female to succeed to prove herself a pressure she feels her male colleagues have not had to encounter.

“It makes me kind of feel like I’m afraid of making mistakes because people could use that as an example that women aren’t capable,” Li said.

In group projects, male students will disregard what their female classmates are saying, UW junior and genetics major Katlyn Frane said. Though Frane cannot be completely sure this happens because they are women, she still feels her male classmates undermine her. The thoughts and inputs female students give during a group discussion are often disregarded, or even ignored.

Young women’s educational experiences can discourage them from being in a male-dominated field, UW graduate student in computer sciences Ancy Philip said.

Philip noticed there is difficulty in retaining women in graduate computer science programs. As a teaching assistant in the undergraduate program, she noticed there are not enough women in her classes and that number is even lower in her graduate classes.

While professors often encourage women in their field, Philip has found that whether intentional or not, microaggressions from male classmates are what discourage women.

“I feel like women have to work twice as hard as men just to prove themselves,” Philip said.

But not all women in these fields feel this way. Emily Tomashek, a chemical engineering major, feels completely comfortable in her male-dominated classes. She attributes this to the fact that she has never been personally discriminated against, but knows many girls who have been.

While Tomashek generally prefers to work with other women in class because they seem to be more accepting of mistakes, she rarely feels underestimated while working with male classmates. They treat her as they would treat their other male friends in a classroom setting.

Still, Tomashek thinks it would be beneficial to have more women in STEM majors and careers.

“If more girls are successful in STEM fields, then the next generation will be able to envision themselves as scientist or engineers and more and more girls will be willing to go into more male-dominated fields,” Tomashek said.

Pressure continues in careers

These experiences with microaggression and discrimination can continue into a woman’s career.

According to the Pew Research Center, 42 percent of women have said they experienced discrimination in the workforce because of their gender.

Director of the Masters of Engineering program Sandra Anderson has had a multitude of experiences in male-dominated fields both inside the classroom and in the professional world.

Anderson began her educational career at the University of Oklahoma where she received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mechanical engineering. At UW, 14 percent of undergraduate mechanical engineering majors are women.

During Anderson’s education, she didn’t experience microaggressions from male colleagues or professors, but that changed when she started her career.

While in the professional world, Anderson noticed men are “smart” about what they say and do not outright discriminate or harass their female colleagues. Anderson credits this to the increase in sexual discrimination training many workplaces require of their employees.

“I feel like women have to work twice as hard as men just to prove themselves.”

Anderson said while gender discrimination against females in these fields may not be as direct, it still happens subtly.

In one situation, Anderson accused a boss of discrimination based on her gender, to which he said he had never said anything directly.

“I said, ‘You are correct. You have never said anything. You have never said anything positive about my work. You have never put me in for a raise or promotion, you have never had my back,’” Anderson said.

In another situation, Anderson said a boss was angry with her for not being “subordinative enough.”

Women who want to go into engineering or other male-dominated fields should choose something they enjoy, Anderson said. Because then when someone says something, it won’t really matter.

“If you’re doing what you enjoy doing, then it won’t bother you so much if somebody said something,” Anderson said. “If you’ve got one person here or there that says something, you’re still going to get to do what you want.”

Working against history

The challenges of getting more women into science-related fields stem from a history of women being overlooked and undervalued in the workforce.

Historically, women in STEM fields have not had an easy time, UW history of women in technology professor Marie Hicks said.

Women began working in technology when computing and programming first began in the 1940’s, Hicks said. It was seen as “just using machines” and not very important, so women should do it.

“Adults contribute to gender socialization. They shunt girls and women into areas they’ve traditionally been in.”

That changed in the 1960’s when computers began to be recognized as “powerful,” Hicks said. There was a gender labor flip in the U.S.

“[The flip] pushes women out of the field and pushes young men, who actually don’t have any technical skills, into those jobs,” Hicks said.

While people may believe women have gradually worked their way into STEM fields, that’s not exactly how it is in reality, Hicks said.

Women receiving degrees in computer science peaked in the mid-’80s and declined until about 2008, Hicks said. The trend then came back up a little bit in the following years and is now starting to decline slightly again.

“In a way that’s good because we can look back on history and say, ‘how did we get into this mess?’ and come up with better answers to get out of this mess,” Hicks said.

While women have made progress since the ‘60s, there are still structural problems within the STEM field, Hicks said.

A common statistic regarding the gender pay gap is that women make 79 cents to a man’s dollar, according to a 2016 report from Senate Joint Economic Committee Democratic Staff. But UW economics professor Timothy Smeeding said there is a lot more behind this statistic than meets the eye.

The report said women earn 79 percent of what men earn, but this statistic is simply a ratio of women’s median earnings to men’s median earnings, UW economics professor Barbara Wolfe said in an email to The Badger Herald. It doesn’t directly compare earnings of a man and woman in the same position, doing the same work, Smeeding said. There are more nuanced issues at play than simply raising women’s wages.

This statistic does not take into account the fact that women are often the ones who take time off work for children, Wolfe said. The gap tends to be bigger for those in prime childbearing years.

Gender and women’s studies and psychology professor Janet Hyde said women also often go into fields like teaching and social work because they want to make a difference and feel welcome, but these fields also tend to be underpaid and undervalued.

While Hyde said women should go into these types of fields if they want to, parents and teachers tend to socialize women to push them into these fields — something Hyde said can discourage women from going into STEM fields.

“Adults contribute to gender socialization,” Hyde said. “They shunt girls and women into areas they’ve traditionally been in.”

But women should not think they are not smart enough or focus on what they cannot do, Hicks said. Instead, they should band together.

Women in the workforce can create unions to pool their power, Hicks said. Students can also get together to create things like educational initiatives to better fit their needs.

“Power is only real if exercised,” Hicks said.

Given the fact that women were behind in the job force for so long because they were not allowed to be as highly educated as men, women are making up ground in the economy fairly quickly, Smeeding said.

While there is still room for improvement, women are better now economically than they have ever been, Smeeding added.

“The future for women is bright,” Smeeding said.

Efforts to expand women involvement

Professors, students and campus leaders are taking a variety of approaches to encourage more women to join STEM fields and to ensure women feel confident in them.

Engineering physics professor Todd Allen, who has also taught nuclear engineering classes, believes the low number of women in the field is keeping it from being as creative as it can be because many different views are missing. The engineering department is actively trying to recruit women.

Allen also said he makes sure he doesn’t treat his female students any differently and has noticed they tend to be quite confident.

One way female students in these male-dominated fields at UW find community and strength is through Women in Science and Engineering. WISE is a worldwide campaign that began in 1984.

Frane is the vice president of the WISE out of house organization majoring in genetics. While genetics is a female-dominated field, Frane works closely with many female students who are in male-dominated fields.

WISE gives girls the opportunity to find other women in their specific major, Frane said. Computer science, for example, is an undergraduate major with 230 women compared to 1085 men.

“WISE helps make a smaller campus for everyone, even smaller for the women in STEM on campus,” Frane said. “It can be really hard, especially for those girls in engineering, to connect with other women on campus.”

Houghtaling, also in WISE, agreed with Frane. The program holds seminars to connect students with women in STEM.

“The future for women is bright.”

The program provides female role models for students in their specific fields as well as contacts for things like internships, Houghtaling said. Houghtaling made a contact at a seminar and was able to maintain a research position because of that connection.

“I feel like I don’t know what I would do without WISE because there are so many people that think like you and are going into the same the same field as you,” Houghtaling said. “You just instantly have a bond.”

In addition to the classroom, men dominate shop areas as well. To get women more involved with the hands-on processes of design and fabrication, biological system engineering professor Rebecca Larson and shop instrumentation specialist Kody Habeck started the Biological Systems Engineering Women’s Shop Night.

Larson said it is sometimes difficult for women to be in a shop surrounded by males along with the added pressure of learning a new task.

“I think the women who have participated have grown in many different ways,” Larson said. “Some are more confident in their abilities which is reflected in other parts of their work.” 

The female students who participate in the BSE women’s shop night are also able to meet and form relationships with women in their fields with similar interests, Larson said.

While a lot of work still needs to be done to encourage women to go into STEM fields, one great step is providing young women with role models who encourage their passion in their fields, Larson said.

“Sometimes it can be discouraging when I hear [women] are backsliding in some ways,” Larson said. “But programs like this and the female students I see in the department comfort me as I remember there are so many wonderful females who will absolutely continue to help the STEM fields evolved to be a more inclusive environment.”


Correction: A print version of this article said biomedical engineering is a major that is dominated by men. This article has been updated to reflect that that field currently has a near-equal split between men and women. The Badger Herald regrets this error. 

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