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Fewer women pursuing STEM work

Fewer women are pursuing education in high-tech fields even though employers say they have more of these better-paying positions than candidates to fill them.

A new report from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research found fewer women nationwide are getting degrees in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math, known as STEM. While the trend nationally is going down, more female students at Sinclair and Clark State community colleges are earning STEM degrees though not in large numbers.

“Women do make significantly more in these fields,” said Cynthia Costello, author of, “Increasing Opportunities for Low-Income Women and Student Parents in STEM at Community Colleges.”

Women in STEM careers’ median earnings range from about $41,000 for engineering technicians to $71,900 for electrical engineers, while women overall had median annual earnings of just $35,600 in 2009.

“Their underrepresentation in STEM fields, and especially those you can move into with a community college certificate or degree, means that opportunities in those higher paying fields are closed off to them,” Costello said.

Women have been underrepresented in STEM occupations for the last decade, steadily holding less than a quarter of the jobs, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.

Although women in STEM careers will earn one-third more than those in other jobs, the number of women nationwide attaining STEM associate degrees has dropped 26 percent since 2000. They represent 27.5 percent of STEM degrees and certificates.

The number of women earning certificates has fallen even further, by 50 percent during that time, according to the report.

Women hold also a disproportionately low number of STEM bachelor degrees, according to the commerce department.

“One of the challenges for us is to let women see that these are professions that don’t have to be male-only,” said Roger Abernathy, dean of Sinclair’s science, math and engineering division.

Sinclair has seen an increase in female STEM graduates thanks to recruiting efforts and a strong female presence in its faculty.

The college had 21 more female graduates in STEM in 2010-11 than it did four years earlier. Sinclair had 44 female STEM graduates last year.

The percent of graduates who are female grew to 11 percent from 9 percent during that time. Overall, Sinclair’s student population is 57 percent female.

At Clark State, which has 70 percent female students overall, about 48 percent of graduates in the school’s STEM programs were women. There were 75 female and 82 male STEM graduates last year. That’s up from 44 women in 2006-07, according to Clark State.

“That’s something they can build on,” said Costello, who added the more women in the programs, the easier it is for other students to see them and imagine their own STEM careers.

Sinclair engineering student Arianna Knisely said she is hopeful more women will enter STEM, but for now she is one-of-a-kind in her electronics class.

“The first time I had that class, I was like, ‘Wow, I can’t believe I’m the only girl in here,’” the Vandalia native said. “It felt intimidating.”

Knisely, who plans to enter electrical engineering, is in Sinclair’s two-year engineering university transfer program and will finish her degree at a university of her choosing.

STEM jobs are expected to grow at nearly twice the rate of other fields, the report states.

But currently women who do earn credentials are more likely to use their degree in “traditional” roles, such as in education, which is nearly 74 percent female, according to the report.

Sinclair’s computer aided manufacturing classes draw just a few women every year, and most have a family member in manufacturing, said Natalie Royer, professor and lab technician.

Employers are calling daily to inquire about students capable of running the machines used to make molds for plastics, such as cell phone covers, medical supplies and replacement hips.

“The challenge is getting the word to people so they understand what the professions are,” Abernathy said.

Costello said a lack of female role models could be a factor in the national decline of women earning STEM degrees.

“It’s proven through research that people gravitate to programs where they feel comfortable. If you have a female faculty member, you’re much more likely to have female students,” said David Devier, Clark State’s vice president of academic and student affairs.

There is high competition in hiring women with the STEM credentials to teach at the community college level, he said.

Devier said he has made an effort to hire female faculty in fields dominated by men, and now women make up half the faculty in industrial engineering technology and information technology. The only staff member in geospatial technology is a woman, as well.

At Sinclair, half of faculty are female in chemistry and physics. Among the ranks of faculty, there also are 12 women in math, six in biology and seven in engineering, according to the college.

Costello said colleges need to offer students support through the financial aid process and provide access to child care. Students must also be actively recruited starting at a young age and through their first year at college.

Sinclair begins exposing students as young as kindergarten to STEM with programs, such as TechFest, the upcoming April 20 engineers day, WiSTEM for girls only and more.

“We are part of a national movement,” said Surinder Jain, Sinclair’s assistant dean of the science, math and engineering division.

WiSTEM is entering its 19th year and will be held June 18-22 this year. The program, which brings high school girls to campus, will also provide five $1,000 scholarships for students entering Sinclair this fall.

Costello said community colleges will need more resources to implement strategies to recruit and retain female students.

“There’s more lip service paid to the importance of community colleges than there are investments that match up to that,” she said.

“We need serious investments.”

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