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Why are Utah women far behind men in STEM education, jobs?

Published June 8, 2013 11:27 am

Study • The trend to discourage girls from choosing those areas starts in school.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Compared to the nation, Utah women lag especially far behind men in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), a trend that seems to begin early and continues into the workforce, according to a new report from the Utah Women and Education Initiative.

About 17 percent of Utah jobs in STEM professions are held by women, according to the report released this week. Nationally, that portion is 24 percent.

"There is this big gap ... we're discounting half of our population who could contribute significantly to these fields," said Pam Silberman, spokeswoman for the Utah System of Higher Education. Far fewer women study STEM fields at Utah colleges — just 12 percent of engineering and 13 percent of computer science degrees go to women.

The gap appears to start early. Test scores for fourth -grade girls in Utah are 3 percent behind their male peers' results in science, and by eighth grade the discrepancy grows to 9 percent, according to U.S. Department of Education data.

"I was not encouraged as a child to think of what I wanted to be when I grew up, " said Arie Mobley, who is from Sevier County and is now an associate research scientist at Yale University studying olfactory development.

Instead, she said, the message was to "look to being married and having children."

But counting women out of those fields excludes them from some of the highest-paying and fastest-growing jobs in the country, Silberman said. And bringing more women in also appears essential to the state's goal of having 66 percent of Utah residents with a post-secondary degree by 2020.

"We really need to be encouraging everyone to meet that mark," said Utah Science Adviser Carol George, named to the post in May.

There's one woman on the 11-member board of a new $10 million STEM center dedicated to improving Utah education in those subjects. No initiatives directed at girls and women are planned yet.

"It's not just women but the entire population in Utah that needs to be educated on the reasons why [to choose] STEM careers," George said. "We're not looking to fulfill a quota for women on the STEM board."

So why don't women study science and math?

"That's what I've been spending my whole year trying to answer," said Miss Utah Kara Arnold, a soon-to-be medical student at the University of Utah who holds a bachelor's degree from the U. in biochemistry. "What I'm trying to figure out is why these girls are so scared to enter the sciences. I don't think it goes back to it being difficult."

Arnold, who made STEM education her platform when she was crowned last year, said part of the reason could be social pressure that says studying science isn't cool, "the stereotype that science is not a place for women," she said.

While girls seem to test well on those subjects when they're younger, their interest seems to drop off when they hit junior high and high school, she said.

And differing gender expectations for girls and boys can start even sooner. Cynthia Furse, professor of electrical and computer engineering at the U., said she sensed those pressures on her daughter in the sixth grade.

"'Girls don't do math, girls don't need as much math,'" she said. "Luckily, she's pretty rebellious and she's now getting a master's in engineering."

Skills in an in-demand career field, she said, can give a woman more family flexibility. In addition to bringing in more income, she might also have more benefits — Furse said she was able to take a year off after the birth of each of her children and work from home.

But being in a science or tech career isn't always conducive to having a family, said her daughter, 22-year-old Katie Furse.

"If you do want to have a really prestigious career in engineering it's going to be hard," she said. "If you drop out for 10 years to raise kids, things change a lot."

Family tends to be particularly important for Utah women, where many are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and often get married and have children at younger ages.

"We wouldn't want the message to be every girl should be in computer engineering and not raise a family," said Cynthia Furse. "Every child should go into the career they're interested in and would be useful to help raise a family."

Mentoring, especially from other women, seems to be important in getting and keeping women in STEM.

"I myself had to be remediated in math," said George. Her first semester, the teacher wrote on the board, "You can learn to do math." Though George didn't buy it at first, by the end of the semester she had adopted that mentality and "changed my academic career."

George went on to earn a doctorate from the University of Connecticut and found an international scientific consulting firm before becoming the state's science adviser.

Communicating that science is a creative career that can be nurturing and make a difference also seems to help.

"I think most people I've talked to say they like to see a benefit to society," said Amanda Bordelon, an assistant professor of civil engineering at the U.

She studies concrete, a speciality she compares to baking — with the added benefit of occasional opportunities to blow things up. "I'm used to ... [being] one of the only girls in classes," said Bordelon, who studied at the University of Illinois before coming to Utah. And at the U., her department has five women on the faculty, more than in Illinois.

lwhitehurst@sltrib.com

Twitter: @lwhitehurst —

New guides for Utah's STEM education

This week, the Governor's Office of Economic Development (GOED) announced Jeffery Nelson, president and CEO of Nelson Laboratories, will serve as the chairman of the board for the state's new STEM Action Center. The center will use its $5 million appropriation for 2013 to build the math skills of sixth, seventh and eighth graders and increase college math readiness.

The other board members are:

Bert VanderHeiden, vice president of Aerospace Structures, ATK

Blair Carruth, assistant commissioner for academic affairs, Utah System of Higher Education

Brad Rencher, senior vice president and general manger, Adobe

Christine Kearl, deputy for education, Office of the Governor

Gene Levinzon, managing director, Goldman Sachs

C. Mark Openshaw, State Board of Education

Martell Menlove, superintendent, State Board of Education

Robert Brems, president, Utah College of Applied Technology

Stan Lockhart, government affairs manager, IM Flash Technologies

Spencer P. Eccles, executive director, GOED, STEM Vice Chair