COLLEGE PARK – Most of Kellie LaFlamme’s computer science classes at University of Maryland Baltimore County are led by men. But she has relied on the female faculty at her school for support as she prepares to enter a male-dominated industry.
“It’s a lot easier to have women to talk to. They’re more understanding and they can relate. I feel that male professors may be a little bit more impatient or not as empathetic,” she said.
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LaFlamme, a senior, has been fortunate enough to be mentored by three female professors in her program. But many young women interested in computer science — and other science, technology, engineering and math fields — do not get the same chance, because the faculty ranks in most STEM fields are dominated by men.
Having a strong role model of the same gender can help convince female college students interested in hard sciences that they have a place in classes filled with young men. But female STEM faculty said in interviews that their ranks are too small to support as many young women as they’d like.
Between 2003 and 2008 the percentage of female STEM faculty members at four-year colleges and universities dropped slightly from 36 to 35 percent, according to the most recent data from the National Science Foundation.
At UMBC, computer science professor Penny Rheingans was recently tasked with assigning faculty members to mentor incoming freshman women enrolled in STEM programs.
Rheingans, who directs UMBC’s Center for Women in Technology, wanted to match each young woman with a female professor. There weren’t enough to go around, so she had to turn to male faculty who understood the importance of nurturing young women.
Her mentor pool now consists of about 80 percent women and 20 percent men, she said.
“They can’t model that ‘being a woman who is successful in the field part,’” she said of the male faculty members. “But they get it.”
Young women often feel out of place in male-heavy classes, leaving them feeling vulnerable, she said. A female mentor can reassure them that they are on the right path.
“When there aren’t people that look like you, it can sort of make you doubt whether you should be there,” she said.
At UMBC, only 10 percent of undergraduate computer science majors are women, said computer science professor Marie desJardins.
“You could be in a class of 40 students and you could be the only woman in the whole room. So it’s really important, I think, for female students to make connections with other female students and with female faculty, just to feel like they belong,” said desJardins, one of LaFlamme’s mentors.
The gender differences were made plain in her computer ethics class during a recent discussion on video game piracy. While some of the young men were very active in the discussion, the six young women in her class zoned out.
“All of the women had no real interest in that topic… so there were just some real differences. You can’t pretend this stuff doesn’t happen, that doesn’t help,” she said.
LaFlamme has far more female role models at UMBC than her mentor, DesJardins, had as an undergraduate at Harvard University in the early eighties. She said she could not recall a single female computer science professor.
But there was a female professor in another department who she “kind of admired from afar.”
“I think it really made a difference. Before that, I had had supportive male mentors, but I’m not sure I had ever really envisioned myself in that role of being a professor until I started to see…women who were doing it,” she said.
Jennifer Scott, an associate professor at Towson University’s College of Science and Mathematics, said she never had any doubt that she was cut out for a career in a STEM field.
“I already knew that I had the intellect, that I could do physics, that I could do math. I didn’t need to have a female professor to give me that confidence,” she said. But a female mentor who supervised a summer research internship gave her an extra push to go into astronomy.
“She was somebody that I could see modeling my life after, in a way,” she said.