Number of female STEM faculty increasing

By Denise Dick


The number of women among Youngstown State University’s Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics College faculty has increased 41 percent since 2007.

Martin Abraham, dean of the STEM College, said that more women faculty attracts more female students to the STEM fields.

The advantage of that is twofold, he said.

“Fifty-one percent of the population is female, and we need more engineers and scientists,” Abraham said. “If we throw away half of the population from the get-go, we have more of a challenge to meet the demand we have, the need.”

The other reason is that in general, men and women approach problems differently.

“One isn’t better than the other. They’re just different,” he said.

Women have been better represented in the life sciences, but without women in the physical science and engineering fields, you don’t get the benefit of women’s different approach to problem solving.

When the STEM college was established in 2007, it included 17 women among the 111-member faculty. By 2012, that number had risen to 24 of 117 and two more will join the ranks next year.

The number of STEM students has increased although there’s not dramatic change in the gender composition.

In 2007, 2,410 graduate and undergraduate students were enrolled — 73 percent male and 27 percent female.

Last year, 2,833 STEM students were enrolled — 72 percent male and 28 percent female.

Felicia Armstrong, assistant professor of geological and environmental sciences, said female faculty serve as role models for female students.

“It encourages them when they see another female who has been successful in the science fields,” she said. “It gives them the confidence to know they can do it, too.”

Abraham believes that historically, women have been discouraged from pursuing STEM careers. He referred to the talking Barbie doll marketed to young girls back in 1991. One of the phrases the doll said was, “Math class is tough.”

“It’s sending young girls a message that math is hard, and if you can’t do math class, you can’t go into engineering or most of the STEM fields,” the dean said. “Through mass marketing, we’re telling young girls that math is hard. The cultural message we send to girls is engineering is tough, math is hard, the sciences are hard and girls don’t do that sort of thing. It makes young girls turn off from it and not participate.”

Alicia Prieto Langarica is an assistant professor of mathematics and statistics at YSU who just finished her first year at the university.

Growing up in a conservative family in Mexico, she was discouraged from excelling in math.

“My mother always told me, ‘If you show you’re smart, you’re never going to get married,’” Prieto Langarica said, adding that her mother is proud and supportive of her career.

While a student at the University of Texas Arlington, she had a female professor who served as her role model, and she wanted to provide that help to other female students. When she came to YSU, she was one of only two female professors who taught upper-level math courses to math majors.

Prieto Langarica learned last semester that she made a difference for at least one student. She worked with the young woman, helping her with class.

The student wrote Prieto Langarica a letter, telling her how much she had helped her.

Armstrong, who’s been at YSU for eight years, said that traditionally there have been fields that have been male-dominated, and others female-dominated. But those stereotypes are changing, she said.

Growing up, Armstrong’s parents — her dad a scientist and her mom a teacher — encouraged her to pursue science.

She only encountered discouragement once while a college student.

“A long time ago in the ’80s, a [retired] math professor told me I didn’t need a ‘B’ in calculus class,” she said.

Because she was female, a “C” was good enough since she was in college to earn her “Mrs.” degree, her professor implied.

“I was an 18-year-old kid in college, and I just had no way to respond to it,” Armstrong said.

In the intervening years, many of those old attitudes about what people can or can’t do based on their gender have changed.

“I’ve seen a lot of that change in my lifetime,” she said.

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