October 30, 2017

Colleges, companies recruit women into STEM fields

WPI freshman Sadie Dominguez, in the school's Salisbury Labs, discovered in high school that she wanted to study programming. She's one of five recipients of a new scholarship program to encourage women to study STEM subjects.

It didn't take long for Sadie Dominguez to find computer coding was for her. She was hooked during a class during her freshman year at a high school outside San Francisco when she learned how to write HTML, which decides what a website looks like.

It didn't take Dominguez long, either, to notice something else when she'd go to a science summer camp or sit down at a cybersecurity club: there were very few other girls. She was surprised. She went to an all-girls high school and didn't realize there would be a gender gap.

But Dominguez, a freshman at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, wasn't deterred upon entering the college club filled almost entirely with men.

"OK, I'll change that," she recalled telling herself. "I'll show up."

WPI – and the rest of the science, technology, math and engineering world – needs more young women like Dominguez.

STEM fields have very few women, but colleges are working to change that. At WPI, this fall's freshman class was 44-percent female, up from 34 percent a year ago – WPI's previous high mark.

Colleges like WPI and large employers of engineers and scientists, including Central Massachusetts companies Boston Scientific, MathWorks and Waters Corp., are looking to women to help round out the workforce and meet a growing demand for workers in the field. They're starting young – all the way to elementary school, when children already start thinking of what they want to be when they grow up.

"We're banking of the fact that 5-year-old girls who enjoy playing with slime will have a soft spot for science," said Kristin Tichenor, a senior vice president at WPI who oversees enrollment.

Recruiting women into STEM

About a decade ago, WPI stopped requiring prospective students to submit SAT scores, feeling standardized tests can work against women and minorities. When reviewing applications, the school emphasizes subjective factors before looking at grades. Since then, applications from women have risen by 81 percent.

Then the school took about $1 million each year was once used for merit appeals – when students ask for more financial aid than initially granted – and directed it to scholarships for women to study STEM.

"It was a calculated risk," Andrew Palumbo, the dean of admissions and financial aid, said of no longer devoting money to merit appeals.

This fall, for the first time, WPI gave $20,000 grants to five incoming girls studying STEM, including Dominguez.

Young women considering a STEM career at WPI don't need to look far. Laurie Leshin, who became WPI's first female president in 2013, is a former deputy director of NASA's mission to send a human to Mars. Leshin – whose Twitter handle is @LaurieofMars – was a scientist for the Curiosity rover mission on Mars and remains on call as a monitor of the program.

Leshin has helped bring a spotlight to the issue of so few women in the field.

In April, WPI was one of eight schools to host a program for students to talk with GE employees, including WPI alumnae, about being a woman in STEM. This month, the college hosted a talk on the subject by 2001 alumna Urvashi Tyagi, the director of engineering at online audio company Audible.

WPI and STEM employers are doing more, but have a long way before women are represented equally in the field.

The importance of women in STEM

Women account for less than one out of five degrees in computer sciences or engineering, according to the National Girls Collaborative Project, which studied federal data.

Women have been in key science roles for generations, even if it wasn't until much more recently they were recognized for it. "Hidden Figures," a book and movie released last year, told the story of a trio of women who were key contributors to a NASA space launch in the 1960s. Women are still fighting for equality in the field today.

Nearly half of women – 46 percent – said they'd reject an employer if it had an all-male board, all-male management or if they were interviewed only by men, according to a report in September by the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council, which surveyed 1,000 current, prospective or former Massachusetts workers.

Women are about equal with men in entry-level positions in the STEM industries, MassBio found. But that roughly split quickly changes: men account for 76 percent of executive positions and 86 percent of board seats.

Reaching potential workers early

Waters Corp., an analytical instrumentation maker in Milford, starts STEM outreach in elementary schools, sending staff to classrooms for scientific experiments or to help develop curriculum.

Waters participates in the Massachusetts STEM Advisory Council, whose mission is to increase students' STEM education opportunities. The company sponsors scholarships for Milford area graduates to study STEM in college and supports a STEM academy at Regis College in Weston, said Mark McAuliffe, the company's director of global talent acquisition.

"What we're trying to do at Waters is support the ecosystem," McAuliffe said.

Boston Scientific, a Marlborough medical device maker, has 14 teams of STEM education volunteers, including 24 people in Massachusetts. The company starts as early as second grade, giving young girls an example to look up to, said Marilee Grant, the company's director of community engagement.

"They're not identifying … that can be them in the lab coat," Grant said.

MathWorks, a Natick software company, is involved with projects such as a weeklong STEM program in Boston public schools. The company donated $10 million this month to the Museum of Science in Boston for an exhibit being designed to appeal to women and girls.

"It's the catalyst for younger ages to become engaged in STEM," said P.J. Boardman, MathWorks' education marketing director.


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