The ‘S’ in STEM: Sexism in STEM classes places barriers for underrepresented students

Women, nonbinary students call for change in STEM majors, overall field 

· Jan 11, 2023 Tweet

Corey Holl/The Badger Herald

“People talk to you differently and listen to what you have to say very differently from how they listen to another man.”

That was a University of Wisconsin nuclear engineering and physics student. The student requested anonymity because she fears retaliation from her classmates and will be referred to as LR. 

LR often feels outnumbered and muzzled in her classes and feels her experiences within her major have differed significantly from those of her male classmates — both in and out of the classroom.

She finds herself going out of her way to gain respect from her peers in nuclear engineering classes — something that she doesn’t experience in other classrooms on campus.

The nuclear engineering major is small, with only 66 students total, according to UW’s latest enrollment report from 2019-2020. 

With a heavy workload and high expectations, the major challenges students academically. But the small number of women in the major  — eight in 2019-2020 — must navigate challenges reaching beyond just the classroom.

Not feeling respected by her classmates has significant impacts on LR, but she is not alone when it comes to facing challenges on the basis of identity in the male-dominated STEM sectors on campus.

Underrepresented groups in STEM majors at UW face challenges in classes populated by mostly white, male students.

Upon reflecting on their experiences, female and nonbinary students in STEM majors say they find the overall environment can cause tension on a daily basis. This, coupled with the rigor of their academics, results in obstacles that have adverse impacts on mental health.

But the challenging environment reaches beyond campus, impacting female and nonbinary people working in the field, too.

Recent efforts have aimed to acknowledge and address the changes needed to prevent underrepresented groups from being deterred from the field of STEM. But the daily obstacles women and nonbinary people must overcome indicate that there is more work to be done.

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Classroom Culture

About a quarter of students in the UW College of Engineering identify as female, despite comprising over half of the UW student body. Almost 15% of engineering students were people of color — more than 85% are white, according to the most recent enrollment facts from the Office of the Registrar.

Meg Riker, a senior studying civil and environmental engineering, said she believes her classes have a relatively good ratio of male to female students.

“From my personal experience, I would say 40 to 50% of the room is women, which is great,” Riker said. “I know in other courses and other majors, it’s different — like, very different.”

Riker works as a communications intern for the Propelling Women in Power podcast sponsored by the Wisconsin Energy Institute.

As an intern, Riker speaks with individuals who work in STEM careers — asking the question of who and what facilitated their success. Through this, Riker has compared her experiences with those of other women in engineering.

There are some fields with lower rates of women, such as nuclear engineering, Riker said.

One nuclear engineering student who understands the daunting task of juggling multiple responsibilities on top of her major is Grace Stanke.

Stanke, who was recently named Miss America 2023, has a unique experience as a student. But as a woman in nuclear engineering, she too must navigate the male dominated environment — which includes run-ins with sexism.

“I have experienced sexism, blatantly, from professors and from other students that were in my classes and I thought were [my] friends, which is a frustrating experience.”

Stanke said she’s learned to handle and tolerate the sexism she faces to the best of her ability, but there have been points at which she reached her limit.

In one instance, Stanke recalled receiving snide comments from one of her classmates. Despite addressing the situation by telling the student the comments were unacceptable, the student continued to make the comments towards Stanke. After a few months, Stanke brought the issue up to the department head.

“I didn’t want the perpetrator to get expelled or anything like that,” Stanke said. “But I wanted him to learn and improve himself as a human being because even if he’s removed from my life, it doesn’t mean he’s removed from other people’s lives where he can still impact them.”

Upon voicing her concerns to the department head, Stanke said she felt the situation become shockingly real and stressful. The situation was resolved, but not without department leadership intervening. 

“He [the student] wouldn’t listen to me, but he did listen to department heads and administrators,” Stanke said.

Department of Engineering Physics Chair and professor Paul Wilson works with students to address their concerns.

Supporting women with concerns about their classroom environment can take many forms, Wilson said.

“I’ve talked to them [students] and supported them in finding ways to bring those concerns forward in ways that are effective,” Wilson said. “One student worked with the Dean of Students’ Office to have her concerns addressed, [while] another student decided not to pursue that route.”

Most of the concerns students bring to Wilson’s attention occur outside of the classroom, which can make it difficult for department leadership to be aware of these issues, Wilson said.

But by working to foster an environment where students feel comfortable reporting incidents, Wilson hopes to see shifts in nuclear engineering classes.

“I definitely want students to feel welcome coming to me, coming to my office,” Wilson said. “I hope that the ones who have come have felt sufficiently heard and supported.”

Wilson is working to build community among incoming nuclear engineering students with a first-year course. The class is designed to bring students into one room, where they can get to know one another and build a community.

Prior to the implementation of this course, nuclear engineering students were not all in a class together until their junior year, Wilson said.

“That’s one of our goals for this first-year course — to bring them together as a community,” Wilson said. “And in so doing, be very intentional around establishing norms and expectations within that community in a way that we think will create a healthier community for all people, particularly people who are typically underrepresented in engineering.”

Importance of Intersectionality

LR finds discriminatory comments made by her classmates extending to groups outside of which she identifies, including people of color and queer people. This contributes to the toxicity she identified in her major.

“A big issue is people who are bystanders when people say stuff that’s homophobic or racist,” LR said. “I’m the only one who says something and no one ever backs me up. That’s a drain to deal with all the time.”

Such discriminatory rhetoric attacking non-white and queer people has been shown to deter the already underrepresented groups from the field of STEM, further contributing to the alleged fraught environments and exacerbating the lack of diverse identities.

One study published by the Psychological Bulletin found individuals who identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual face minority stress in the field — acute stress linked to their membership within a minority group. The causes of minority stress presents itself in many ways, including prejudice and discrimination, but often leads to poorer mental health outcomes among members of minority groups within the field.

Though LR stands alone in speaking out against such comments, it is clear to her that these comments affect her classmates too. But when nobody else addresses the comments, the silence reinforces the already unequal power dynamic.

“You can always tell based off of people’s body language what they think and if they disagree with something, or if it hurts them to hear that,” LR said. “But they don’t say anything. It’s very bizarre.”

UW’s Ethnic Studies Requirement aims to foster an understanding and appreciation of diversity. But engineering students on campus are most likely to satisfy the requirement just before graduation, according to a UW analysis.

Associate Dean for Inclusion, Equity and Diversity in Engineering Chris Castro said in an email statement that many undergraduate engineering students choose to satisfy non-engineering requirements just before graduation because they carry heavy credit loads related to their major.

Along with leadership from the College of Engineering, Castro is working to integrate inclusion, equity and diversity into the engineering curriculum, he said. Integrating this into the curriculum includes supporting instructors in learning how to teach these concepts and holding students accountable for learning the concepts, Castro said.

“It’s a work in progress, and we know it must be done because the responsibility for inclusion, equity and diversity should not rest on the shoulders of an Ethnic Studies Requirement alone,” Castro said. “It needs to be woven holistically into the student experience during their engineering education.”

Beyond Engineering

The field of STEM consists of far more than engineering students at UW. Students within the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences as well as the College of Letters and Sciences can commit to these areas of study as well.

In the UW College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, 63% of students identify as women, according to the Office of the Registrar.

CALS Genetics and Genomics student Cora Luzinski, who uses they, them and theirs pronouns, has also faced adversity on the basis of their identity in their major.

When Luzinski introduces themself in their classes, they feel a sense of tension. Typically, they are the only person in the room who identifies as nonbinary, and they feel when they share their pronouns, they are bringing an awareness to the idea of preferred pronouns into the classroom — and it is sometimes the first time their classmates feel this awareness, Luzinski said.

“Once it gets to me, and then I’m the person who has pronouns that aren’t standard, you can kind of tell people are like, ‘Oh, okay, now we actually have to respect pronouns,’” Luzinski said.

Despite Luzinski’s clear declaration of their pronouns, they still find themself being misgendered by their classmates. When Luzinski was first misgendered it stung, but they have since become numb to the feeling.

“It is slightly unfortunate,” Luzinski said. “But it’s the sting, and it just hurts and it’s people attacking me in a way that they don’t fully realize.”

Luzinski faced prejudice on the basis of their gender identity since the beginning of their time at UW.

As a first-year student, Luzinski found themself in a general chemistry lab group with two male students. Upon discussing the assignment and delegating tasks, Luzinski was asked to complete the lab report for the group.

“We were discussing what we wanted to do, and they were like, ‘well, you’re a girl, you have neater handwriting,’” Luzinski said. “So you can write the lab report.”

Unsure how to respond, Luzinski did as their group members told them and wrote the entire lab report.

But Luzinski was a resident of the Women in Science and Engineering learning community at the time, where they were surrounded by other students and peer mentors who faced similar challenges in STEM classes on campus. Luzinski received the support they needed to navigate future situations similar to this one.

Now, Luzinski is a WISE Student Program Lead, helping students who relate to these challenges navigate STEM classes on campus. These challenges can arise both in and out of the classroom, affecting students in different ways.

Effects on Mental Health 

The overall environment women and nonbinary people encounter in the field of STEM has adverse effects on mental health.

A study done by the American Society for Engineering Education found that mental health among engineers is particularly concerning due to the rigor of work and extremely high expectations. Additionally, women in STEM face worse mental health overall.

At UW, not feeling respected by her classmates impacts LR’s motivation. LR finds herself left out of collaboration with her male classmates — who often share answers and study materials with one another, but not LR, leaving her to work completely alone and feeling as though she is not performing as well as her classmates.

“I just put in all this work, and then I feel like I sometimes still do worse than my classmates,” LR said. “And I know it’s because they all help each other out and then I’m just left on the side sometimes.”

Luzinski also finds themself struggling with motivation due to the disrespect they face from their classmates. Recurring instances of misgendering leave Luzinski feeling disrespected, making it difficult for them to show up to their classes.

Luzinski said these feelings of disrespect can increase anxiety and depression among students.

“You’re worried that if you say the wrong thing, you’re not going to be taken as seriously,” Luzinski said. “So you’re going to say less, then less.”

These feelings accumulate over time, making it difficult for people who relate to the struggles of being underrepresented in the field to remain motivated, according to Luzinski.

While specific experiences in the classroom and encounters with classmates can impact the mental health of women and nonbinary people in STEM, Riker said the overall culture of engineering at UW can sometimes neglect the mental health of students.

The field of engineering is extremely detail oriented and analytical, according to Riker. Because of this, students are expected to make decisions based on facts, rather than emotions.

But people do have emotions, making this task difficult, according to Riker. This becomes especially apparent when doing group work in engineering classes.

Balancing emotions is a role often taken on by women in society, according to a study on emotional labor — the management of feelings and emotions to fulfill tasks — done by the National Library of Medicine. This extends to the field of engineering, according to Riker.

“You’re the person trying to lead the group, but you don’t want to be overbearing,” Riker said. “You need to recognize everybody’s emotions and make sure everybody’s getting along so that work gets done effectively, and just to maintain cohesiveness. I have seen that women do that work a lot more than the male engineering students.”

While there are male engineering students who acknowledge that women are often the ones who handle emotions among students, not nearly enough do, Riker said.

As fact-driven decision makers, Riker said people in the field of engineering must find a balance, because students are human and therefore have emotions that cannot be left unaddressed.

Off campus, Riker has found that companies hiring engineering students sometimes fall short when attempting to address diversity issues.

This presents itself in multiple ways — from failing to discuss diversity at large, or failing to have a diverse staff. These complexities create barriers for underrepresented groups to enter the field of STEM.

“It’s scary for people who are not white men to walk into a room with interviewers who do not look like them,” Riker said. “I think companies are starting to come around to that, but not as quickly as they need to be.”

Change within the field of engineering is occurring gradually, but needs to happen at a faster rate in order to open the field up to more people, according to Riker.

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Finding Solutions

In recent years, the UW College of Engineering has instituted programs to evaluate support for underrepresented groups within engineering programs at three different levels — recruitment, retention and climate assessment, according to Castro.

Recruitment efforts address students at pre-college, undergraduate and graduate levels. These recruitment efforts also extend to professors, with the WiscProf program launched in May 2022.

Through recruitment, the representation of individuals from historically excluded communities in STEM can be increased, Castro said.

But once students are at UW, they must be supported, Castro said. The Inclusion, Equity and Diversity in Engineering (IEDE) Student Center helps support student organizations such as Queer and Trans Engineers, the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, National Society of Black Engineers and the Society of Women Engineers, Castro said.

The Graduate Engineering Research Scholars program is also housed in the IEDE Student Center, according to Castro.

“These organizations are central to our retention efforts — they provide spaces for creating community and strengthen a sense of belonging in our students,” Castro said.

Additionally, the Leaders in Engineering Excellence and Diversity Scholarship and the Strategic Targeted Achievement Recognition Scholarship offer financial assistance and professional development opportunities to support students from underrepresented groups in engineering, according to Castro.

The College of Engineering also assesses the climate of classrooms through its triennial E3 survey — which aims to assess the educational environment and other variables related to students’ success and retention in the College of Engineering, according to Castro. The survey was last implemented in spring 2022.

“We are using the findings from the survey to develop professional development for instructors to better understand the experiences of students, particularly students who identify as members from underrepresented groups in engineering,” Castro said.

Students in CALS also have the support of student organizations to help build community as students work through their majors.

The WISE learning community provides students who identify with the struggles of being a woman in STEM with support as they work through STEM classes on campus, according to Luzinski.

“WISE is not for people who are women, it’s for anybody who can identify with the struggles of being a woman in STEM,” Luzinski said.

These student organizations and learning communities help build community among students in STEM majors, according to Luzinski. Finding support can be critical to success in the field, Luzinski said.

With slow change, the field of STEM will become more welcoming for all groups of people, according to Luzinski.

The efforts currently being made by institutions to improve the environment in STEM are a step in the right direction, but there is still a long way to go, Castro said.

“Women who are currently in senior positions at companies, they’re moving big boulders, so I only have to move rocks,” Stanke said. “So, my daughter hopefully will only have to remove pebbles from her pathway.”

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