Introduction

In the past two years I have spent many hours writing about women. I have interviewed women who currently study, teach, and staff Southern Polytechnic State University (now the Marietta campus for Kennesaw State University), and I have interviewed women who currently work at corporations with a science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM) emphasis. Often I have reflected on my own life experience in an attempt to understand more fully why many of the women I have interviewed made decisions to gain a STEM education, and why I wasn’t one of those women.

A recent study from the University of Texas at Arlington’s College of Education may explain my choice. It finds that girls often have the academic backgrounds necessary to earn a STEM degree, but many are simply not interested in pursuing such a degree. Using three decades worth of data from the High School and Beyond Study, the National Education Longitudinal Study, and the Educational Longitudinal Study, researchers examined indicators of high school math and science achievement. Areas of special interest were the physical sciences and engineering since these majors have the greatest gender disparity as girls and boys advance to college studies.

Catherine Riegle-Crumb, Assistant Professor in UT Arlington’s Department of Curriculum & Instruction finds, “The relatively small disparities between males and females found across all three cohorts does little to explain why so few females choose STEM majors.” She wants to know what it is that girls, who are highly qualified in math and science, find more attractive to study. She feels certain that girls are not against STEM fields, but that they choose something they find to be more interesting.

On many levels I understand Riegle-Crumb’s results quite well. My father felt that out of his eight children I had the best aptitude for math. He ensured that I took Analytical Geometry, Trigonometry, and Calculus while I was in high school. He also ensured that I took biology, chemistry, physics, and computer science. One would think that all of this great exposure to math and science would lead me to study a STEM field. However, my free time was spent reading and watching Perry Mason. I started college with a double major in English and Political Science. After realizing I would need to study something other than Criminal Law to become a lawyer, I completed college with a B.A. in English with teacher certification.

My point: I have nothing against the STEM fields; I simply chose something I found to be more attractive.

Thus, my interview with Meighan (Meg) Dillon, Professor of Mathematics, and Pam Frinzi, a professor in the Electrical and Computer Engineering Technology (ECET) Department explores why they chose STEM, especially since they chose to study in fields that Riegle-Crumb states have the greatest gender disparity (Meg began college as a physics major, and Pam turned to Electrical Engineering Technology after she realized a degree in Chemical Engineering meant working for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) at the time she was growing up).

For many reasons I want girls to emulate Meg and Pam. The STEM fields offer women unique opportunities given the exciting advances that have recently been made in the sciences, technology, and engineering fields. Debbie Sterling, the engineer who created Goldie Blox (an engineering toy for girls), builds stories for the engineering toys she creates in order to help girls see that engineering helps to solve problems for people (it seems women like stories when they are little girls and that they like to solve problems that help people when they are adults).  She hopes that by engaging girls with toys that teach spacial concepts and that ask girls to solve engineering problems girls will become more fully aware of what it takes to be an engineer and more interested in becoming one.

By teaching mathematics and engineering technology, Meg and Pam are women helping people to gain the tools necessary to use STEM knowledge to help others. Their own stories help both women and men to see how daughters can become the women who lead in STEM fields and who lead in other forms of leadership. I felt fortunate to sit down with the two of them to talk a bit about their choices and their careers.

Getting Started in STEM Fields

Meg Dillon and Pam Frinzi in the doorway of Pam's office.
Meg Dillon and Pam Frinzi in the doorway of Pam’s office.

Meg, Pam, and I first discussed what attracted them to mathematics and science. They both started with the same answer: they were good at solving math problems and they were interested in the sciences. I pushed them for more. I was a good math and science student, but that didn’t make me want to study in either field. Pam followed up by stating that she liked the ability to find a ‘right’ answer. That made sense to me—I actually hear this same idea quite often from my students when they express their preference for math over writing.

Pam and Meg both talked about “falling into” the fields they now teach on campus. For example, after realizing that she did not want to work at the EPA, Pam realized that she liked computer hardware and digital signals and headed in that direction instead. Thus, she began making her way through an Electrical Engineering Technology degree on the Southern Tech campus. She was one of two females in her Circuits II class, and she encountered several people who weren’t sure that she should continue in her chosen field of study. However, she was quite sure that she should, in fact, do exactly that and didn’t let their opinions get in her way.

Meg became a math major because she found that the boys and the professors in the physics department were less than welcoming. In fact, she took quite a bit of flack. In one class neither the boys nor the professor wanted to acknowledge her either by making eye contact or by talking with her. One physics professor consistently asked her, “Do you know what you’re doing?” This wasn’t said in a tone that meant, “Is there something I can do to help you?” Luckily for Meg, she realized that she needed to take a great deal of mathematics for her physics degree and that she wasn’t receiving flack in her math classes. She decided to use mathematics as her major field of study and to consider physics for graduate school. What she soon realized is that mathematics was a great field for her. She learned math was not about calculations, but about ideas—ideas clarified and made precise through calculations—but ideas nonetheless.

When Meg and Pam chose to obtain STEM educations, I doubt either purposefully chose to be hassled for doing so. Because they encountered problems with other students and with some professors during their studies, I wondered about the support they received at home. I learned that Meg’s father kept a neutral stance concerning her decision to attend college and to major in physics and then in mathematics. He had attended Princeton himself and was proud to have some college education, even though he did not complete his degree program. Meg ended up mainly relying on her own ambition in order to achieve her goals.

Pam’s father was clearly supportive. He let her know that it was okay not to be a traditional woman. Because she was raised “tough” (as she puts it), she found it easy to let negative comments roll off her shoulders. It’s good she felt this way. Not only did it come in handy while she was in college, but it later came in handy when she was working for Colonial Pipeline, where she was the only woman on staff until the company hired a female mechanic. While at Colonial Pipeline Pam remembers working with a technical operator on a project installation, who was quite sure women should be barefoot and pregnant and in the home, and he shared his opinion with her.

Teaching in the STEM Fields

Both Meg and Pam dealt with some institutional barriers once they entered academe as faculty members, but overall, they have found that working with their colleagues has not been a problem. Meg has found that the good luck she experienced with mathematicians at the college level has continued in academe while Pam has continued to let the problems she has had with a few people roll off her shoulders. Her response: ignore the problem people and go find others who are more supportive.

Both Meg and Pam were lucky when it came to managing their pregnancies and their work in academe. Many women in academe end up taking disability leave in order to give birth their children and to care for the newborns. Pam was luck since she gave birth to her children in the summer, and Meg was fortunate to have accumulated enough sick leave to cover the birth of her children.

Both Meg and Pam have noted a salary difference between their male colleagues and themselves. According to the SPSU Fact Book for 2012, there is gender disparity in salaries at the full-professor level, but the disparity is less at this level than at some other levels. The average male, full professor makes $1,347 more than the average female, full professor. Gender disparity in salaries is a larger problem at the associate and assistant professor levels where the average salary for a man is nearly $6,000 higher than the average salary for a woman at the associate-professor level and is more than $6,000 higher at the assistant-professor level. Numbers crunched by the American Association of University Professors and the Chronicle of Higher Education indicate that gender disparity in salaries remains pervasive in the academy.

Because I also teach on the KSU Marietta campus, I am always interested in how students react when women are their teachers. As a rhetorician I am aware of the rhetorical situation: someone (whether speaking or writing) shares a text (whether written or oral) with an audience in a certain context. A major role of academe is to privilege and to measure ability in both students and faculty. Each semester faculty evaluate students and students turn around and evaluate faculty. Data concerning how students rank faculty are used in annual reviews.

What evaluations don’t seek to understand is whether gender makes a difference in how students evaluate faculty or whether cultural ramifications concerning what people believe men and women do well impacts students concerning their beliefs about a faculty member’s ability.

Given that both Meg and Pam teach in fields that were once considered the purview of men, it’s not surprising to hear that both have had their authority tested. Pam discussed the fact that when she first started teaching engineering technology, male students especially tried to trip her up. She talked of getting questioned in ways that she was pretty sure her male colleagues weren’t experiencing. Interestingly this questioning came from younger, male students more so than adult students. Meg mentioned similar types of issues. Because she knows one of her male colleagues quite well, she knows he hasn’t been questioned in the same way.

Pam has seen similar issues concerning her abilities as a teacher surface  in her consulting practice as well. Pam consults with engineers by teaching platform development concerning Universal Serial Bus (USB). She has at times set up a room for the training only to be asked the whereabouts of the instructor. She has also needed to talk with clients on the phone first in order to assure them that she is indeed competent.

Academic Leadership

Maybe the good thing about choosing a field of study in which you will be challenged is that choosing to lead others is not a problem because you are quite experienced in having your abilities challenged. Both Meg and Pam have also taken on leadership roles at SPSU. Each has spent time as SPSU’s Faculty Senate Moderator.

Several of Pam’s peers in ECET talked her into becoming the moderator. They had concerns with how well the senate was fulfilling its role at SPSU and knew from department meetings that Pam was capable of putting things in order. She spent her first year cleaning up past issues and working to create more active involvement from the senators. As she worked throughout her second year, meetings continued to become more productive and the senate addressed important issues. While the three hours of release time she received to perform senate tasks didn’t come close to covering the hours she spent on senate issues, she was pleased to see more senior faculty, who would not be easily intimidated by administration, become senators, and she was pleased to see important issues such as those concerning grade replacement and summer salary taken up by the senate.

At this point in time, Meg has twice been the Faculty Senate Moderator. She first became moderator soon after she was tenured and right after Dr. Lisa A. Rossbacher was hired as SPSU’s president. She then repeated her service in 2012 – 2014. She felt it was quite important for her to step up the second time. Pam and she had worked well together and had shared similar goals for the senate. Thus, she wanted to ensure that actions Pam had begun were continued. She also wanted to ensure that issues she felt were of great importance were addressed.

While both Meg and Pam felt that key faculty members supported them as Faculty Senate Moderators, they did face tough issues and did need to determine what to let roll off their backs. Meg especially was challenged in her final term as moderator with issues dealing with the merger between KSU and SPSU. Her entire senate agenda for the 2013-14 school year was changed by the November 1, 2013, announcement that the two schools would merge.

Conclusion

When I examine my childhood, I am aware of the many times I observed girls, who were one month some of the smartest people in the class become the following month people, who were having troubles making the grades, but who had increased their popularity twofold. I watched other girls attempt to ensure they pleased others—they measured every action they took by how it was reflected in the eye of another. Since then I have watched ambitious women get demonized for being too assertive. I have sometimes seen women resort to manipulation in order to cover their ambitions so that they can effect the change they want. Because entering STEM fields and becoming leaders mean ambitious study and work, all of the issues mentioned above make it difficult for girls and women to choose to study in the STEM fields and to choose to become leaders.

If girls are to enter the STEM fields and to become women who are similar to Pam and Meg, they need role models who have chosen a route not because it was popular or because it pleased others but because it was the road they wanted to travel. They need role models, who have ignored criticism and who are willing to break new ground. They need the support of both women and men—after all, it was Pam’s father who first championed her cause. We celebrate Pam and Meg’s accomplishments during Women’s History Month because they model behavior that helps girls to make difficult choices. Their stories tells girls that they, too, belong in STEM fields and that they can engineer worthy futures for themselves and others.

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