Women in STEM Day: Busting the ‘bro code’

Washington University female undergraduates to host 125 high school girls Feb. 26-27

Girls participate in engineering activity
Two high school students participate in a design challenge at the 2015 Women in Engineering Day. Organizers have changed the name of the event to Women in STEM Day. (Photo: Courtesy of Mary Richardson)

When Rebstock Hall was built in 1927 on the campus of Washington University in St. Louis, it did not have any women’s restrooms. Why would it? The building served the biology department, and biology was for boys.

Some 90 years later, women study the biological sciences at a higher rate than men. Still, when it comes to many STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math), the gender gap persists.

“There is a ‘bro code’ that is hard for women to bust through,” said Amritha Gourisankar, a junior in biomedical engineering at the School of Engineering & Applied Science. “The challenges for female scientists are real. But the opportunities and rewards are real, too.”

Gourisankar and Connie Gan, a junior in biology and mathematics, both in Arts & Sciences, will share those opportunities with female high school students at Women in STEM Day Saturday, Feb. 27, at Washington University.

The event will showcase cutting-edge science and top speakers. Highlights include a chemistry flame test, a 3-D printing demonstration, an introduction to environmental nanochemistry and a competition to build an “earthquake-proof” structure from uncooked spaghetti, coffee stirrers, Play-Doh and other materials. Some 125 young women from across the St. Louis region are registered to attend.

Girls watch an engineering demonstration
Students from local high schools watched cutting-edge engineering demonstrations at last year’s event. (Photo: Courtesy of Mary Richardson)

“We show them the entire spectrum,” Gan said. “They learn not only about STEM majors, but all of the opportunities to further pursue their passions outside of class.”

The event was formerly known as Women in Engineering Day, but organizers changed the name to reach a wider audience. Also, many students don’t know that they are interested in engineering until they see it.

“My dad is an engineer, and I went through high school saying I never wanted to be an engineer because I thought it was building things,” Gourisankar said. “Now, I’m a biomedical engineering major and I’ve never built anything. I do all of my design work on the computer. I clearly didn’t really know what engineering was. Women in STEM Day will show these girls what engineering actually looks like.”  

The consequences are huge. Scientists are addressing the Earth’s most urgent problems, and are paid well to do so. And yet, nationally, women earn fewer than 20 percent of undergraduate degrees granted in engineering, computer science and physics. And the gap grows even greater in the workforce: For instance, only 15 percent of chemical engineers are women. The percentage is even lower in civil, electrical and mechanical engineering.

Ruth Okamoto, senior research associate in the Department of Mechanical Engineering & Materials Science, is adviser to Women in STEM Day and a mentor to many female students in the School of Engineering. She loves showing students how math and science can solve real-world problems. Still, she knows firsthand the challenges women face building a community in school and at the workplace.

“As a mechanical engineering undergraduate, my major was about one-third women,” Okamoto said.  “When I stayed for a master’s degree, the percent of women dropped to perhaps 1 in 8. When I worked in my first engineering job, I was the only woman engineer in my group. My work friends were the women in the lunchtime aerobics class.”

Gan believes her generation will enter a more diverse and supportive workforce. She reports that Women in STEM Day tripled  in size, in part, because of the community they build the night before. For the second year in a row, participants are invited to spend the night in the Washington University residential colleges with female STEM majors. They will play games and experience life on a college campus.

“You start to see relationships form,” Gan said. “They really wanted to know about college life — how do they integrate their diverse interests in, say, a sport and science?”

“I remember one girl asked me if I cried,” Gourisankar said. “I was honest — it is hard. There are times when I feel like I need to prove my worth and prove why I am an engineering major. ‘What are you going to do later? How are you going to balance having a family?’ I feel like I get those questions a lot.”

And yet, Gourisankar feels as if she has made the right choice for her. She hopes some of the visiting students take the same path.

“I want them to come here and see us as people who made it through, people who are happy and have friends, and people who love their experience,” Gourisankar said.

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