The Howard Woman in STEM

No, STEM fields are not just for men.

From the beginning of the Obama administration, the president has called for getting more girls interested in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). He said women represent half the population but were underrepresented in these fields and were “not being encouraged the way they need to.”

Preethi Chandran, an assistant professor of chemical engineering at Howard University, said that such calls to action would help us diminish some gender-based stereotypes. 

“All the campaigning is good so that women know it’s not abnormal to be good at math—it’s not abnormal to be expected to be good at math,” Chandran said. 

Even with the positive campaigning to get more women and girls involved in STEM, women in the field still face obstacles.

According to a recent Hastings Center for WorkLife Law study, 100 percent of women of color in STEM reported that they faced gender bias in the workplace and that bias was met with racial stereotyping as well, leading to what the study called a “double jeopardy.” It is more common for women who earn Ph.D.s in STEM—a field where they are underrepresented in the workforce to earn them from a historically Black institution, according to the American Institute for Research. Howard University is the top HBCU producer of African-American STEM Ph.D.s. On the undergraduate level, Achille Messac, the recently appointed dean of the College of Engineering and Architecture (CEA), is excited about progress toward getting more women of color involved in STEM, and hopes to be a part of the institutional changes that need to be made.

“Our college is unique in thatwe have over 30 percent women as undergraduates, the majority of which are women of color,” said Messac. “We have made significant progress in that area relative to other institutions.”

“I am not at all satisfied with where we are, and I intend to redouble our pertinent efforts. We need a much greater percentage of women professors. We need to have a more institutional approach to mentoring women faculty in our college, and we need to transform our professional environment.”

Sonya T. Smith, director of innovation and strategic initiatives in CEA, describes being the first woman promoted into this position in the mechanical engineering department at Howard as bittersweet.

“I’m glad that I was promoted, but I’m sad that it’s 2016 and that was almost 10 years ago—we’ve not made any progress,” Smith said.

“So we really have to do some work on climate and culture in some departments to make them more friendly and welcoming. Changes are happening and some of the interventions we have with the Advance program are helping.”

Howard University Advance-IT, sponsored by the National Science Foundation, is part of a national initiative that aims to increase the number of women faculty in STEM. Smith is the project’s principal investigator. Of the 71 faculty members in CEA, only 15 are women. 

“One of the reasons why I wanted Howard to participate in (the initiative) is because we have so few women in STEM, and particularly women of color,” Smith said. 

Smith also shared how she is practicing what she preaches. In her lab, she has an African-American female postdoctorate, doctoral candidate, master’s student and two African-American female undergraduate students.

“That’s important to me—that I’m educating and bringing along the next generation of women in STEM. I could do that at no other place but Howard,” Smith said. 

Michelle Warren (B.S.E.E. ’16) is one of the women in the next generation of STEM. While at Howard, she worked hard to get other women involved in engineering, despite the lack of representation in her own department, which has no women faculty members.

“Howard helped me to figure out that, if there’s something that I think needs a change, then I’m going to be the one to change it, and I have to figure out a way to see an ongoing change,” Warren said. “When you’re in a position where it’s not a lot of people like you, you can’t really open up as a (woman) because you’re in a classroom full of guys with guy professors,” Warren continued. “On one hand, the expectations of you are lower and it’s kind of condescending; I can do what my counterparts can do. On another hand, the expectations of you are a lot higher because you’re the only female representation.”

For two consecutive years, Warren served as the girls’ outreach chair of the Society of Women Engineers, which annually hosts “Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day,” an event that is open to high school girls in the Washington, D.C., metro area. Volunteers help the girls do engineering projects and see how they can become engineers themselves. 

“This year was the best year,” Warren said of her senior year. “The girls had such an amazing time. They felt so impacted and so much more inclined to do engineering.

“Us going out and doing what we didn’t have done for us makes a big impact,” Warren said.

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