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UCI Women in STEM: Shrinking Gender Gap Doesn’t Erase Inequalities

At UC Irvine, women in STEM fields may still experience implicit biases within male-dominated math and science majors, despite the fact that the university’s largest school, biological sciences, has admitted more female than male undergraduates for the ninth year in a row, according to UCI’s Office of Institutional Research.

Of the eight traditionally “STEM” (science, technology, engineering and math) schools at UC Irvine, four admitted more women than men in the 2015 spring quarter: public health, pharmaceutical sciences, nursing science and biological sciences, the last one having 1,793 female undergraduates compared to 1,104 males. The spring 2015 census marks the ninth consecutive year that women have outnumbered men in biological sciences at UC Irvine.

However, the gender gap in UCI’s schools of physical sciences, information and computer science and engineering remains heavily skewed towards men, with over three times more male than female engineering students — just 704 women compared to 2,263 men in the undergraduate census from spring 2015.

Some female STEM students at UCI argue that under-representation in these schools hinders their access to the opportunities and mentorships that their male counterparts enjoy; in contrast, the shrinking gender gap in UCI’s largest school, biological sciences, has demonstrated that women in better-integrated STEM schools are afforded better opportunities than women in schools with larger male-to-female ratios.

Second-year biological sciences major Aminah Habib says that her major has given her more access to female mentors and UCI professors than those in other STEM majors with less female representation.

“Based on what I know, women tend to choose biology over other sciences partly because the gender gap is very visible in other areas of science, like physics and chemistry, so women don’t really have a mentor or someone to look up to who is also a woman,” said Habib. “Compared to other fields, it is easy to find female biologists to look up to. I have been lucky to have an equal number of male and female biology professors here at UCI.”

However, Valerie Vikhliantseva, a second-year honors computer and game science major, says that even while UCI makes advancements in shrinking the gender gap in its school of biological sciences, inequalities still exist which discourage women from pursuing careers in other STEM fields.

“I definitely think there are more obstacles women must go through in a technology-oriented workplace. All but one of my ICS professors have been male so far, and in my major, there’s only two or three other girls that I know of,” said Vikhliantseva. “Women in the gaming industry specifically are constantly berated and told that it’s not their place to be in, both by male gamers as well as others in the industry itself. There’s a reason less women go into STEM, and it’s because of these gross, outdated stereotypes that exist even in a professional work environment.”

The sentiments of these UCI students are strengthened by a series of studies on implicit bias regarding women in STEM released by the White House last month.

“College faculty are less likely to respond to an email from a student inquiring about research opportunities if the email appears to come from a woman than if the identical email appears to come from a man,” says the study, conducted by Jo Handelsman and Natasha Sakraney. “Science faculty are less likely to hire or mentor a student if they believe the student is a woman rather than a man.”

To study implicit biases in science on UCI’s campus, Professor Jennifer Terry, former chair of the Department of Women’s Studies, currently teaches a Gender and Science class in hopes of dispelling gender stereotypes and inequality in STEM schools on campus.

“The primary objective of the course is to provide [students] with the skills to think critically and constructively about the integral place of gender in the practice of science across a variety of scientific disciplines,” said Terry. “We discuss what gender has to do with how the boundaries of scientific authority are drawn, and who is employed in the scientific professions.”

Resources for women in STEM on campus include the UC Irvine Women in Physics Club and the Women in Information and Computer Sciences Club, both of which aim to promote solidarity among women in male-dominated majors, and provide opportunities and mentorship programs to undergraduates.

Additionally, as a result of the university’s ADVANCE Program for Equity and Diversity, each of the university’s ten schools has had at least one “Equity Advisor” to consult that school’s dean on gender equality issues since the program was implemented in 2002.

Associate Professor and Equity Advisor for the School of Physical Sciences, Isabella Velicogna, has expressed her confidence in the program and her belief in diversity in STEM schools on campus.

“We are committed to fostering academic and research excellence through the promotion of diversity between students and faculty, and the development of a diverse scientific and engineering workforce at all academic levels,” said Velicogna.