Traditional ways hinder women’s interest in STEM

Women in science fields receive pushback from cultural stigmas

By Roxana Amparo, Editor-In-Chief

Women make up less than a quarter of workers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields, in spite of being 48 percent of the U.S. workforce, according to the Census Bureau’s 2009 American Community Survey.

“When you think of an engineer, you think of an old, white man. You don’t think of a woman, or a Latina much less, going into those fields,” Contra Costa College engineering major Karla Cortes said.

Mechanical engineer major Alejandra Canelo said, “We need to have that stereotype out of our heads. We need to picture different kinds of people doing different kinds of jobs.”

Prior to switching her major to engineering, Canelo was set on being an English teacher, but when approaching her dad about her major change, she said he questioned her choice.

“No es para hombres, hija?” “Isn’t that for men, daughter?” he asked.

“The one supporter that I felt was going to support me told me that job wasn’t for me,” she said.

Culturally, women in science fields are almost taboo, particularly in the Latin culture. Cortes said during a Woman Advancing Via Engineering and Science (WAVES) meeting, the group talked about what a “STEM woman” looked like.

“Why is there this perception that if there is a woman (in engineering) it has to be a white or Asian woman?” she said. “Because Asians tend to do better in math so that is the route they are going to go into and white women, they are privileged so they get to do this and not get judged.”

Cortes said people must learn the true statistics and dismiss the ideas about women in STEM fields.

“I want to dispel those misconceptions and replace them with positive thoughts, that it is possible to be a Latina woman in STEM,” she said.

CCC Center for Science Excellence Program Director Seti Sidharta said she grew up in Indonesia and was surrounded by men in her family who had a STEM education.

“I have uncles who are doctors. Brothers who are engineers, so I grew up surrounded by that environment, however my mother’s and my aunts are mostly housewives.”

Sidharta said her family “pushed” her into the STEM fields, so from the time she was in high school she was directed toward science and math classes.

“In Indonesia, your education is pretty much tracked. If you are good at science and math you go into the math field.”

With the support from her professor, Sidharta said she was lucky to have been in that environment and become a professional.

“Some students do have a phobia for math because when they were young they were told women are not good at math or women shouldn’t go into math,” she said. “It’s true that there is such thing as a glass ceiling. People in the higher up are mostly men.”

Canelo said when taking Intro to Engineering with physics and engineering professor Mark Wong as the first class after changing her major, the class was predominantly male.

“I felt really intimidated,” she said. “I’ve never been in a class where there wasn’t a diversity of genders, but there was one girl; she showed up one day and didn’t come back.”

Cortes said when she was in high school taking physics, the low number of women in class upset her. “I like being around women because it makes me feel empowered. So the fact that it was a male- dominated classroom pissed me off in a way,” Cortes said.

When Cortes first arrived at CCC, she said it was a different perspective for her.

“The sense that guys saw you there it was like ‘oh man she is here.’ You can feel it, it wasn’t necessarily what they said but it was the way they looked at you. It made it seem like, ‘What is she doing here.’”

Cortes said her interest for the sciences stemmed from her brother, who helped her understand things like derivatives (a calculus concept).

“Growing up I tended to excel in math and science and I followed my passion.”

But seeing the lack of women’s representation made Cortes want to change and be an inspiration for many.

“It is possible to go into the STEM field if you are Latina and if you are a woman,” she said.

“Don’t be afraid of the challenge and don’t be afraid to stand out, because ultimately you are leading the way for others to follow your path,” Cortes said.