Why the Divide?

Women make up almost 60% of all Americans who have received a bachelor’s degree in biological and biomedical sciences and about 42% of bachelor’s degrees in mathematics and statistics. However, women only make up 35.5% of bachelor’s degrees in all STEM fields. If women in the United States make up such a small percentage of bachelor’s degrees, where does this divide in career choice fall? One answer is engineering, where women only make up 20% of recipients of engineering bachelor’s degrees, according to the article, “Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM): Quick Take” from Catalyst. 

Women across the world are involved in STEM now more than ever before. However, based on numbers alone, there are significantly fewer women than men in engineering. This poses the question, why is this divide happening?

“When I started college at UNH, I was a mechanical engineer. There were sixty students who were freshman mechanical engineers in the class and of the sixty students, there were four women,” said Erica Cooke, math teacher at Oyster River High School (ORHS). “Since then, there has been more of a push for women to get into STEM. I teach the Exploring Engineering class here at school and of the seventeen students there were five women. The percentage is going up slowly, but I would love to see that 50/50.”

Tessa Lippmann (‘21), chose to focus her freshman year Power of One Project on women in STEM and, for her action, had ORHS students take the Harvard Implicit Bias Test. Every year, freshmen at ORHS take on the Power of One project, a project that requires students to create positive change in an area they feel passionately about.

Lippmann had a variety of students take the Harvard Implicit Bias Test, to see if they would  associate a certain gender with science or with liberal arts. Lippmann said, “what I found was pretty expected, the overwhelming majority had a moderate to strong association between men and science.”

This survey only looked at STEM fields in general, not different careers under the STEM umbrella. However, when she did the project in 2018, Lippmann found that there were more women in AP Biology than in any other advanced STEM course at ORHS, with seven male students in that class and eleven female students. On the other hand, AP Physics had a class of fifteen male students and only five female students that same year. This was in 2018, and the numbers in those classes have gotten closer to equal since then, however, there is still a gender divide in Exploring Engineering, as Cooke mentioned.

Lippmann explained why she thought more women go into medicine than engineering. “Since the time we are born, society tells women that our primary role in life is to serve, whether that’s by helping others or taking care of them. So, unconsciously overtime it has been shown that we internalize this and often women go into fields where they are directly helping others, like teaching and day care, so when we are interested in science fields our brains and society push us towards the fields in science where we are most likely to directly help people, like doctors, which is why biology has a surprisingly high number of women,” said Lippmann. 

According to, “Why Are There So Few Women in Tech? The Truth Behind the Google Memo” from The Guardian, the lack of female engineers is due to multiple related factors, including unconscious bias, cultural norms, and the lack of female representation. 

Many girls at ORHS may feel the need to take on a lot to prove their academic ability. To read more about the differences in gender and school, based on brain structure or social norms, check out “The Pendulum Swing” written by Phoebe Lovejoy in Issue 1 of Mouth of the River 2018-2019. As to how this relates to women in STEM, there are a lot of social norms that come across with the notion that women can not excel in engineering. 

One of these social norms is that women often choose to pursue careers in which they are helping others. Dr. Carmela Amato-Wierda, an associate professor in the material science program at UNH runs UNH tech camp, a way to get kids involved in STEM at an early age. She also gives out the Society of Women Engineers award at ORHS every year. “What we do notice at Tech Camp, is that women often talk about wanting careers where they are helping people, they are trying to save the world and to make it a better world,” Amato-Wierda said.  

Kim Sekera, ORHS school counselor sees this too with high school students at ORHS. “Part of it is that sort of ‘nurturing’ element and culturally we, as a society, see women as more nurturing and caring,” said Sekera. She went on to explain that society may push women to go into more caring professions as that is what they are expected to do, and said that we can see that divide in medicine and engineering. 

While engineers certainly help the world, medicine involves more direct care, hence the number of women who go into medicine versus engineering. 

Cooke thinks that part of the reason why there is a lack of girls in Exploring Engineering is due to lack of communication and girls not knowing what to expect when going into engineering. Cooke explained that, even though Exploring Engineering is an intro level engineering course, when people hear engineering they may not understand what it is or if they’d be a good fit for that class. Without knowing about it, girls may not feel confident enough to take that class, as a result of stereotypes and unconscious bias.

Lippmann explained the concept of unconscious bias, which is arguably the biggest issue facing young women in STEM today and especially young women hoping to become engineers, or other underrepresented STEM fields. Unconscious bias is a collection of stereotypes that we aren’t aware of because they are so deeply ingrained in our society. “I know that it is a pressing issue but a lot of times unconscious bias is harder to determine, it’s not like someone is actively saying, ‘Oh, women can’t do science,’ it’s more just over time we have interpreted different things,” Lippmann said. 

Lippmann mentioned one of these things. “One of the most important things is more equal representation of our role models for certain fields. When we talk about scientists and when we learn about scientists, we learn the majority of the time about men. While, yes, it is true that there have been fewer discoveries done by women, I think that we could put a bigger emphasis on the women who have had an influence in science.”

As to why Lippmann decided to focus her Power of One project on this topic, she said, “when we look and see that the majority of scientists are male, we kind of internalize that and it affects the way that we view these fields. So, I just kind of wanted to bring light to that because the more aware you are of this issue, the more likely you are to work to change that.”

At ORHS, the ratio of women math and science teachers is about 50/50, and Exploring Engineering is taught by a woman. “In general, you like to see yourself reflected in that, so when you see these women who are your science teachers it becomes what is normal,” said Sekera.

Cooke added to that point saying, “especially here, in the math department, it’s almost 50/50 males to female teachers, from fifty years ago where it was women weren’t allowed to do math or that women weren’t math teachers.” 

As to how she helps get more girls interested in STEM, Amato-Wierda said, “we know that we have lost most [girls] in middle school, so engaging them earlier and then figuring out why each one of them is not staying in the pipeline I think is what we need to do. We usually try to do a ‘one formula fits all’ and I don’t think that’s going to work.” Amato-Wierda explained that to engage more girls in STEM, we need to look at each individual case and not all women as a whole. 

One way that Amato-Weirda works to get anyone involved in STEM at an early age is through the UNH tech camp. The camp is available for boys and girls grades 5-12, and features an all girls week. “This is what the kids at the camp tell us, they like being here because the other kids like the same things they do. If you can give them a community that they can stay with, then I think that we have met at least some of the problems, that may not be all of them but we have come a long way,” concluded Amato-Wierda.

Artwork by Hannah Jeong