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Women in Stem

Women in STEM majors at Ohio University see positive experience despite low enrollment

Despite making up a lower percentage, women looking to earn STEM majors see positive experience at Ohio University. 

As an engineering or computer science major at Ohio University, it's not uncommon to be one of few women in the classroom, especially in more specialized classes.

Jennah Rawahneh, a junior studying civil engineering and president of OU’s chapter of the Society of Women Engineers, said she’s had a few classes where she was the only woman.

“I haven’t had a bad experience with it because once you hit junior year, you’re friends with everybody,” Rawahneh said.

About 15 percent of undergraduates in the Russ College of Engineering and Technology are female, according to a 2015 headcount from the Office of Institutional Research.

“The only thing that I would say is a little bit strange is when your teacher doesn’t even ask your name because she knows your name already because you’re the only girl in the class,” Rawahneh said.

Even if a woman can stand out in an engineering classroom, that can't transition over to her work, according to Cindy Marling, a professor of computer science and an adjunct professor in the Department of Specialty Medicine.

"The computer does not know my gender," Marling said. "I write code, it runs what I write — it's a totally level playing field."

Women made up about 48 percent of the overall U.S. workforce in 2015, yet progress has been slow in some science, technology, engineering and math fields, or STEM fields.

According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, women received about 18 percent of bachelors degrees in computer science and about 20 percent bachelors in engineering in 2014.

A large part of the problem, Rawahneh and others say, is that people don’t necessarily know what it means to be an engineer or a computer scientist.

OU’s chapter of Society of Women Engineers hosts a “Girl Scouts Day,” an event where the organization brings in Girl Scout troops and expose them to engineering. The group also engages with young students at local schools.

Rawahneh said when the group talks to young people, many of them don’t know what engineering actually is.

“When we talk about engineering, they’ve never even heard of it,” Rawahneh said. “I think that’s a huge thing in itself. Just teaching them what engineering is and all the types of engineering and what they could get into.”

The Russ College also hosts events called “Hour of Code” with assistance from members of OU’s student chapter of the Association for Computing Machinery. The event introduces young students to computer science and teaches them basic skills relating to the subject.

“I think there needs to be continued emphasis on encouraging women to enter engineering, because I think we need that,” Diana Schwerha, an associate professor of industrial and systems engineering and faculty advisor to OU’s chapter of the Society of Women Engineers, said.

Marling said computer science needs not only more women, but people in general given the number of opportunities in the continually growing field.

Even when people know what computer science entails, Marling said, the representations of coders and computer scientists in the media don’t accurately portray the reality.

“What they’ll get from popular media doesn’t look very appealing," Marling said. "If people knew what we did, they’d find it appealing."

Marling said informing students about computer science earlier in their education could help. Furthermore, Marling said more accurate representations of computer scientists could dispel negative stereotypes.

“You interact with a lot more people in other disciplines as a young person than you do with engineers, and so you don’t get a sense of what that’s really like,” Schwerha said.

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Rawahneh said for engineering and other STEM majors, getting involved is important.

“When you’re actually in these clubs and you see these real world applications, … it makes you so much more excited to actually go out in the field,” Rawahneh said.

Although the number of women in engineering is low, Schwerha said women are not victims in that field.

"I don't want to be considered a female engineer if that means something different," Schwerha said. "I want to be an engineer, period. I want to do excellent work, period."


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