When Laura Dillon began studying mathematics in 1969, as one of the only women in her program of study, she felt like “an oddity.”
“We’re the exception as opposed to the rule,” she said.
Nationwide, women are underrepresented in studies and careers involving science, technology, engineering and mathematics — commonly referred to as STEM — highlighting the need for support for young girls who are interested in math and science.
Even though she was often surrounded only by men in her classes, Dillon said “it never bothered (her) much.” After earning her Ph.D. in computer science in 1984 and accepting a teaching position at the University of California, Santa Barbara, however, she began to feel more alone.
“It was pretty isolating,” she said. “I was the only woman on the department faculty for 12 years at UC Santa Barbara.”
Dillon recalls the sometimes uncomfortable realities of being female in a male-dominated tech field — for example, teaching classes with no female students and dealing with the “unique challenges” of raising two young children.
“Even if they had kids, my colleagues didn’t quite understand,” said Dillon, a professor of computer science and engineering at Michigan State University. “They had spouses at home to take care of the baby. My spouse was a full-time grad student.”
Although it was decades ago, the climate Dillon endured hasn’t changed much. For example, men are six times likelier than women to enroll in collegiate engineering classes, according to the National Girls Collaborative Project.
Throughout her time at MSU, Dillon has seen efforts for change — the college is on its first year of a two-year recruiting effort to attract more women to their engineering programs. She also points to the MSU’s Women in Computing group, which serves as a support group for students, as well as providing outreach to prospective students — something Dillon finds especially critical.
“It’s so important to get young girls to play around with technology and let them see what it’s like,” she said. “There’s a problem of not enough role models.”
A crucial time
In Lansing, a program was just recently launched to provide this support before young girls begin losing interest in STEM studies. The 2020 Girls program, a collaboration between the Information Technology Empowerment Center and Michigan Council of Women in Technology, offers summer engineering courses for local middle-school girls.
“In that transition between elementary and middle school, there are a lot of social pulls on girls,” said Janette Phillips, former executive director of the the women´s council. “It’s an important time in a young girl’s life to make sure they get attention from people who care about the same things they do.”
By the 11th grade, only 5.1 percent of girls in the Lansing School District scored a proficient math score on the MEAP standardized testing, compared with almost 12 percent of boys.
Kirk Riley, executive director of ITEC, said that “there’s a lot of pressure on girls to fit a certain mold, a mold that says they’re not that smart and they shouldn’t be interested in science and technology,” he said.
Girls ages 9 through 13 can enroll in summer courses about robotics, programming and game design — taught only by women.
“Those female role models really change the environment,” Riley said. The ITEC has offered similar classes “geared towards” girls before, but this is the first year of an all-girls program.
“Boys tend to run roughshod over girls in classes,” Riley said. “They’ll grab things, they’re much more physical and there’s a little more bickering. It’s more welcoming for girls to have a girls-only program.”
These feelings of comfort and acceptance around other girls with similar interests lead to self-confidence, Phillips said — a key factor in maintaining girls’ interest in pursuing STEM paths. Girls tend to self-assess their academic capabilities in math and science subjects harsher than boys, according to the National Girls Collaborative Project.
“We need to get rid of the thought: ‘I’m a girl, I can’t do this,’” Phillips said.
Ultimately, overcoming that internal discomfort gets more women into the tech workforce, which leads to better products for everyone, Dillon said.
“You really need multiple viewpoints,” she said. “Having only white males creating our software means it won’t meet the needs of people who don’t look like them. It doesn’t lead to the best solution.”