Photo courtesy of the Society of Women Engineers.
Careers in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) field, are becoming much more popular amongst modern day women pursuing higher education.
The University of Rhode Island has numerous student organizations and professional societies to help Women in STEM further themselves.
One national organization that has been widely popular amongst women in the engineering program, has been the Society of Women Engineers, or SWE.
Rebecca Myers, junior biomedical engineering major at URI and president of URI SWE, discusses what she believes to be the two most important objectives of the club.
“The two main parts would definitely be professional development for our members and promoting STEM in younger girls,” Myers said.
Myers explained how promoting STEM-based careers is important for young girls, “We are trying to introduce young girls to these careers early on so that they know what it is, they know that they can do it, and they aren’t intimidated by it being mostly male.”
Sydney Robinson, senior biomedical engineering major and outreach chair of SWE, wants to let young girls know that it is okay to be interested in male-dominant fields. Through the club’s community involvement at local schools, work with the girl scouts organization and the SWE Next club– an organization in which middle and high school girls are able to have women engineers as role models. Robinson works towards not only getting young girls interested in STEM but making sure they maintain their interest in the field. Additionally, she explains how SWE Next promotes the overall academic confidence of girls in school.
“We try to teach them that it is okay to raise your hand, and it’s okay to be good in math and science,” Robinson said.
Associate Professor of the mechanical, industrial and systems engineering department at URI and faculty advisor of SWE, Valeria Maier-Speredelozzi explains her view on why women feel inherently inferior in STEM fields of study. In addition, she spoke about how she believes on-campus groups are working to encourage women to become interested in and stay in STEM.
“I think one of the things women experience is definitely a lack of confidence, it has also definitely been reported by many women in STEM that their skills are questioned because they’re a woman, and their manner of communication is different,” Speredelozzi states.
Speredelozzi also noted the extensive resources and connections students who participate in SWE have available to them.
“The students who are in SWE here at URI have access to the professional female engineers in the area,” Speredelozzi said. “These girls are able to go to conferences, see role models and mentors, meet people in the companies where they want to work, and hear about the different forms of sexism or difficulties that women have encountered, along with the strategies and ways used to get through them.”
Speredelozzi explained how in order to keep women in STEM, she stresses the importance of mentoring, building support networks and building connections. Additionally, she explains another important aspect, the outreach component.
“We have to retain and keep the women who are already interested in STEM, but we also need to work attract more,” she said.
Speredelozzi hopes that by exposing young girls to STEM careers through groups, such as SWE next, more girls will decide to pursue seemingly nontraditional careers with confidence and support through positive role models.
Another group that promotes women pursuing STEM at URI was founded in the Fall of 2018 by Hannah Willey and Ellie Dunkle, both senior ocean engineering majors.
Willey explains how the group was originally a feminist group formed by co-founder Dunkle. However, the focus of the group shifted when both girls realized the lack of support offered for women in STEM at URI.
“We definitely saw the importance for supporting women in STEM especially,” Willey said. “We wanted to have a community where we could support each other, openly talk about things, and vent about issues we face.”
Willey explains her interest in science and math throughout the span of her education, and how being in the small group of females interested in STEM has been intimidating, but mainly motivates her to continue pursuing her interests. She said, “I’ve always liked the challenge, and I almost like people telling me I can’t do something because it motivates me even more.”
She elaborated on how while she has not explained any major negative experiences regarding sexism in her field, but how smaller comments and critiques have particularly been disheartening at times.
“It is not always obvious when they are being biased or sexist, it is the small comments that are made day-to-day that are just belittling,” Willey said.
By providing a supportive, accepting and nurturing environment in which women feel comfortable to discuss their experiences in the STEM field, both positive and negative, Willey and Dunkle want to promote women pursuing careers in fields they are passionate about, in hopes that one day they will not be unjustifiably outnumbered.