Women’s History Month is a time of reflection for college women entering industries that historically and presently exclude them. Women-run and women-led organizations in the Russ College of Engineering and Technology challenge exclusion in science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, industries through their dedication to the subjects.
More importantly, women at Ohio University choose to come together in these organizations to share their enjoyment of STEM, and for friendship. Meagan Hamilton, president of the Society of Women Engineers, or SWE, along with Isabel Alvarez, vice president, and Mek Travis, treasurer, all found passions for engineering and technology while growing up.
Travis is a senior studying computer science and said she was glued to a computer at five years old.
“In high school, I joined STEM club and eventually became president of that and then started learning how to code because of YouTube videos,” Travis said. “And I (was) like this is fun. So, I just kept on with that and here I am.”
Part of the reason Travis joined SWE was to find women representation in the computer science major.
“Computer science has like no women at all,” Travis said. “I am in my senior design class, which is pretty much the people that (are) going to be graduating this year and there’s three girls out of like 60 people in there. So, I found SWE and I’m like finally, a place with other people like me. There’s something so comforting about that.”
Women earn 18% of computer science bachelor’s degrees in the United States. The amount of women in the computer science field has declined since the 1990s. Between 1990 and 2013, the percentage of women working in computer science went from 35% to 26%. The American Association of University Women said if women are given positive guidance in STEM subjects and men help to create more inclusive workplaces and classes, then the percentage of women in computer science could hopefully trend upward.
There are also role models and mentors who can help women gain confidence to enter STEM fields. Hamilton, a fifth year studying mechanical engineering, said her parents motivated her to become an engineer. Hamilton also said her dad is the biggest feminist she knows. Although she has brothers, Hamilton’s dad made her do the same chores as them and let her know that she could pursue whatever she wanted to. Hamilton’s mom also has a large role in her motivations.
“My mom got her associates (degree) in electronic engineering and she’s been in the HVAC field for like 18 years and the whole time she’s been the only woman in her shop,” Hamilton said. “I don’t want that to continue to happen, but I can do that too because she did it.”
Alvarez is a sophomore studying computer science and found SWE during her freshman year, which was completely virtual. Since she was living out of state, she said she craved a community. Hamilton also felt similarly during her freshman year. She said a faculty member encouraged her to check out SWE and since computer science and mechanical engineering have some of the lowest amounts of women majoring in them, this was an opportunity to meet them.
“My sophomore year I did join and immediately met upperclassmen and other people my age and I’m like ‘Whoa you’re a mechanical? No way,’” Hamilton said. “And it’s really funny because… when I joined I didn’t know of any other women in this (major) but then it was like suddenly there were so many.”
Travis, Alvarez and Hamilton agree that SWE’s members make the club special.
“Sometimes it’s not even the stuff they do,” Hamilton said. “It’s the people there, and the people keep you coming back.”
SWE has specific goals when it comes to advocating for women in STEM fields. People may assume that only women can be in the club but Travis said that’s not the case.
“I think this is the first year that we’ve had guys in there,” Travis said. “But I think the point is to normalize women in the industry. We’re just as good as the guys there.”
The United States Census Bureau reported that although women make up about half of the workforce in the U.S., they only make up 27% of STEM workers. The number increased from 1970 when women were 8% of STEM workers. In 2019, women made up 47% of math jobs and 45% of physical science occupations. The numbers for women in computer science and engineering are lower. Only a quarter for computer science workers are women and 15% of women are in engineering jobs.
Organizations such as SWE play a critical role for women studying STEM in college because they provide a safe space away from any exclusionary experiences. Alvarez said SWE is committed to creating experiences of inclusion contrary to the times women spend in classes being talked over or ignored.
“When you're in SWE and you're surrounded by other women, or men who have chosen to advocate for women, you feel a lot more heard,” Alvarez said.
There are 275, or 16.5%, undergraduate students who are women in the Russ College of Engineering and Technology and 1,390 men. In terms of all students, there are 381, or 17.83%, women and 1,755 men.
The lack of women representation in STEM industries and colleges has a toll on women students. But different motivations help remind women of their valuable role in STEM. Alvarez went to a STEM based middle and high school where she discovered how fun it was to apply math to computer science and coding. The reason she decided to further her STEM education in college is simple: she loves what she does.
“I am in my field because I love computer science,” Alvarez said. “I love doing it despite the fact that the industry is corrupted and overwhelmingly male and overwhelmingly white and tells you you can’t do it.”