The future of STEM stands with women

By Janet Waldman, MS ’09, Illustration by Michelle Baker February 27, 2023

Illustration of various women in STEM professional roles

Ask some women who excel at math or science how they chose careers in STEM, and they invariably say, “I just knew it was for me.”

For others, the path is hazier, but a life-changing encounter with a confident woman already succeeding in science, technology, engineering or math can be a pathway to careers in these still male-dominated fields.

Quinnipiac’s Emily Balboni ’24 belongs to the first group. After making a Christmas card in middle school using a block-stacking program called Scratch, she discovered she could blend her natural math abilities with her passion for creativity. Today, Balboni is pursuing a software engineering degree in the School of Computing and Engineering, where women represent 20% of enrolled students.

That 5-1 ratio matches the national average for engineering students. Studies over the last decade have postulated several reasons for that, including a lack of awareness about high-profile female role models in the STEM fields.

Zippia, a website that researches and analyzes career data, found that only 15.9% of engineers in the U.S. were female in 2021. By contrast, approximately 37% of U.S. physicians were female in 2022, according to a report from Statista, an online platform specializing in market and consumer data.

Balboni is aware of the imbalance in her chosen field and is doing what she can to encourage others to choose it as well. She serves as head facilitator for Quinnipiac’s chapter of Girls Who Code, an international nonprofit founded by Reshma Saujani, author of the “Girls Who Code” book. The organization aims to support and increase the number of women in computing disciplines and to narrow the gender employment difference.

QU’s chapter was established in 2017, a year after Saujani visited campus for a lecture. “By 2020, there will be 1.4 million jobs available in computing-related fields with women on track to fill a mere 3%,” she said, amid murmurs of incredulity from the audience.

Girls Who Code teaches teen girls about computer science through a variety of real-world projects including art, robotics, video games, websites and app development. The organization has grown to 10,000 girls in 42 states.

At Quinnipiac, about 30 middle school girls from the region are signed up to attend 10 sessions this spring. Balboni is among 14 female students from the School of Computing and Engineering who volunteer to teach them the basics of coding using Scratch. Together, they create final projects to show to family and friends at a special sharing day.

“My passion started with that Christmas card project when I learned I could create something cool using technology,” Balboni said.

The achievement gap myth

In high school in Marshfield, Massachusetts, Balboni had the opportunity to take an Advanced Placement (AP) STEM curriculum that included basic programming and object-oriented programming. She heard about the chapter during her first year at Quinnipiac when Ruby ElKharboutly, associate professor of software engineering, sent an email to software and computer science majors.

“I hopped on it,” Balboni said. “The age range of the Girls Who Code participants is around the age when I first started coding, and not a lot of kids get an opportunity like I had, so I felt very connected to the project and the thought that I could be part of the process and spread more knowledge about coding.”

Engineering is the most male-dominated STEM field. Kimberly DiGiovanni, associate teaching professor of civil engineering, has researched the role identity plays in the number of women choosing a STEM career. A few years ago, she gave a presentation during the International Women’s Day Teach-In at Quinnipiac.

There is a correlation, she said, between women feeling a sense of identity and belonging as engineers and women sticking with the field.

“I fall into the category of being good at math and science,” DiGiovanni said. Her mom instilled a love of nature in her at a young age, and she studied environmental engineering at Drexel University, earning a BS, MS and PhD in that discipline. She operated her own business, consulting with the New York City Department of Environmental Protection before coming to QU in 2015. Besides her teaching duties, she is a member of the executive board of the Mill River Watershed Association, which has a mission to promote effective stewardship of the watershed through conservation and restoration.  

“There is not an achievement gap as to how well girls do in math and science versus boys, but the gap is in an individual’s perception of how good they are,” DiGiovanni said, noting high school girls often perceive they are less competent in math than high school boys of equal past performance. 

“When we look at students who leave QU engineering programs during their first year, men are leaving with a statistically, significantly lower cumulative GPA than women, 2.88 to 3.34, respectively,” she added.

Implicit biases present in our culture are also to blame for children as young as 7 or 8 visualizing themselves working in what society would consider traditional male/female careers, DiGiovanni explained. She pointed to the Harvard Implicit Bias Test for fields of study, which found that 75% of participants have an automatic association for men in science and women in liberal arts.

ElKharboutly estimates a third of her QU students are women. “Growing up in Egypt, all I wanted to do is math, physics, chemistry and biology, and all of the high achievers in my class were women,” she recalled. “Software engineering is not difficult if this is what you are passionate about and are good at.”

ElKharboutly was one of three professors to receive a 2022 Center for Excellence in Teaching Award last October. She also was an inaugural recipient of the Saulnier Family Scholarship of Teaching and Learning Faculty Fund in January. This fund, which honors the legacy of the late QU professor Bruce M. Saulnier, supports faculty participation in regional, national, and/or international conferences and initiatives on teaching and learning.

As a mother of three daughters, ElKharboutly thinks the relative scarcity of girls entering the field is “partly intimidation and partly because many girls come with very high expectations and want to be perfectionists with no room for failure or mistakes. Because of how they see themselves, they have these doubts that they cannot be the person they should.”

Outreach efforts like Girls Who Code help girls overcome that intimidation that has them sitting on the sidelines of STEM careers. “Our students are excited to become part of a body that is supporting girls in computing,” she said.

Connections are critical

The School of Computing and Engineering strives to not only make females welcome, but to nurture a sense of belonging. First-year students are mentored by older female students and are encouraged to join the Society of Women Engineers student group, which offers social, professional and service events. It also hosts speakers and alumna panels for networking.

About a third of the school’s faculty are women. “If girls connect with other females in the field, they think, ‘That could be me,’” ElKharboutly said. Whereas software engineering enrolls the largest percentage of young women in the School of Computing and Engineering, there have been some years when DiGiovanni has had no females in her civil engineering classes.

“It’s important to have messages that are validating. Women are equally capable of being engineers as men,” said DiGiovanni.

Students and professors interviewed for this article were asked whom they consider role models in the STEM field. Without exception, all paused for several moments before mentioning other colleagues or teachers who inspired them. That is why mentoring is so impactful.

Both Balboni and computer science major Hephzibah Rajan ’23 said they were inspired by Katherine Johnson, a mathematician and NASA employee whose calculations were critical to the success of crewed spaceflights. Her work paved the way for computers to perform those tasks. Johnson was portrayed by Taraji P. Henson in the 2016 movie, “Hidden Figures.”

Balboni shared that her real-life mentor is Lauren Atkinson ’22, the previous lead facilitator of Girls Who Code. “I bonded well with her, and she is a close friend.” Atkinson joined two other alumni from the school for a panel discussion about women in engineering in 2021. She is a data analyst at BlackRock in Atlanta, Georgia.

She’s also inspired by ElKharboutly. “She expects a lot from her students, which in the end makes us smarter and harder workers. A lot of our work is in team settings because that is what we are going to do later and most times, I would be the only girl in my group.”

Balboni affirms that she felt welcomed. “I thought I would feel intimidated. In my first class, I was one of four or five girls in an entire room of guys. Girls can be nervous they will stand out, but from my experience, I felt just like any other student.”

Great chemistry exists among engineering students, Balboni said. “We are a very tight-knit group, and everyone is supportive of each other and excited to see what you’ve been working on. Sometimes, I’ll walk up to my guy friends and say, ‘Guys, look what I coded today,’ and they are impressed!” she said, smiling widely.

Balboni said that occasionally, some first-year students she mentors will express apprehension about the workload required for an engineering education. “I tell them, ‘You are going to be just fine. It’s about balance, and we are here as peer mentors to help you.’ The jump from high school to college is hard, but it’s also intimidating when you are a girl and in an engineering program.”

Recruiting more women

Kiku Jones, professor and chair of Business Analytics and Information Systems in the School of Business, said about a quarter of the students majoring in these two STEM fields are women, which is slightly less than the national average. The department is staffed by five women and three men.

Even though there has been an increase in IT jobs, she noted that Gartner, a tech research firm, reported that only about a third of IT employees are women. Like engineering, the IT profession also suffers from a lack of retention of women. “One reason for this could be an absence of role models who are women in many organizations, which can be difficult for new employees. A mentor who truly understands what you are going through can be invaluable,” she said.

Rajan, who was born and raised in Oman, knows that firsthand. She said the support she received from a woman at her internship last summer was empowering.

Her first internship was at resuscitation device manufacturer Defibtech in Guilford, Connecticut. She recalled having inspiring conversations with a female coworker during ride shares. They talked about how it felt to work in a male-dominated environment.

“It was nice to know that other women already in the field are trying to improve our chances of prospering,” said Rajan, who has been very active as a student at QU. She was named 2023 National Engineering Intern Student of the Year by the American Society for Engineering Education in recognition of an internship she did with CVS/Aetna.

Rajan changed her major from software engineering to computer science after figuring out that she wanted to learn more about the back end of computers and artificial intelligence. She thinks high schools could do more to prepare girls for STEM careers.

“In Girls Who Code, we try to get them to think of engineering in a different light. We tell them it’s a learning process — you’re not left in the middle of an ocean not knowing how to swim,” Rajan said.

Hannah Cabral ’21 is a systems engineer at Electric Boat in Groton, Connecticut, where she was hired right out of college. She said about 1 in 10 people within her department are women. She graduated with a mechanical engineering degree and returned to QU several years ago to give students an overview of life in the real world.

“I can't say I have ever experienced much gender bias,” she said. “Sure, there is the occasional person who may think better of themself due to their gender, but it has never had an effect on me. In the industry, how you carry yourself is crucial in how others treat you. If you present yourself with confidence, people will treat you with due respect if you show the same respect.”

Cabral tells others that the engineering field is diverse and ever changing, and the degree is versatile. “You may not know the exact path you want to take and that is OK. I went into the field as a systems engineer working in the defense industry. While I am still looking to pursue a career in defense, I have recently been looking into switching my position within the industry.”

Rajan is encouraged by the slow, but sure progress she sees happening. “I sense an upward trend and hope it continues. It’s high time that we understand we can be just as successful as our male counterparts.”

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