When Kate Peiffer sits in class and looks around, she senses something missing. As a junior civil engineering major, she’s mastered substituting numbers for words in lecture notes, but she has yet to get over the intimidation she feels from being one of the few women in the room.
According to the U.S. Economics and Statistics Administration, women hold less than 25 percent of jobs in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. While being part of a minority group within a major can be daunting, Peiffer also finds it empowering.
“I have found that sometimes people have responded to me with hesitation when they hear that I am majoring in engineering,” Peiffer said. “I feel like they’re almost waiting for me to say what back-up plan I have when I change my mind. STEM fields are challenging, but I truly believe women should have the same opportunities as guys when it comes to excelling in the field.”
Some women in STEM have yet to experience the gender gap. Michaela Thomson, a freshman biochemistry major who plans on eventually attending medical school, is currently enrolled in diverse general education courses. But she expects a noticeable difference in her peers the further she gets in her major and career.
“I’m sure as I continue in my undergraduate classes and take higher-level biochemistry classes, the male-to-female ratio will change,” Thomson said. “And, way in the future, I will have to find a way to balance family life and work life.”
To help combat the feelings of isolation in the later years of her major, Thomson plans on joining Women in STEM, an MU organization that supports its female members by equipping them with resources, connecting them to similar students and providing them with career opportunities.
Peiffer is a member of two similar organizations that are specific to her major. MU’s Society of Women Engineers and the American Society of Civil Engineers both emphasize community and try to interest college students, young girls and even parents in engineering and STEM.
Through ASCE, Peiffer has helped host an Engineering Day for Kids that brings in elementary school students who have parents who want them to pursue a STEM topic. Society of Women Engineers hosts a similar event called Mother/Daughter Engineering Day, during which girls from elementary to high school do activities and learn more about what engineers do.
Events like Engineering Day for Kids and Mother/Daughter Engineering Day aim to encourage girls to pursue their love of STEM by destigmatizing their interests and giving them someone to look up to and to be inspired by.
Peiffer’s biggest role model was, and still is, her great-grandmother, who graduated with a nursing degree from the Kansas City General Hospital in 1942.
“I know that her determination played a large role in acquiring her nursing degree when few women were attending post-secondary education,” Peiffer said. “I like to think that her perseverance is hereditary.”
But not everyone personally knows a woman in a STEM, which is why representation in film, books and other media is important. Stories about women like Katherine Johnson, whose life inspired the 2016 film Hidden Figures, have inspired girls of all ages, including Thomson.
“I loved the movie Hidden Figures. It really highlighted the role of African-American women in the development of NASA,” Thomson said. “I thought it was inspirational, and it challenged women to continue to break down barriers in their fields.”
Breaking down barriers is something senior biological sciences major Brianne Schmiegelow is familiar with. After graduating from a small, rural high school, she felt like she was forced to play catch-up in her classes.
“Because our school was so small, we didn’t have the resources for a strong science program,” Schmiegelow said. “With the help of some friends and professors, though, I was able to stick with it and get to where I am at now.”
After graduating in May, she plans on attending UM-Kansas City’s School of Dentistry in August. She was accepted into the program last fall.
Being a woman in STEM has its fair share of struggles, but Schmiegelow doesn’t want that to hold young girls back.
“Dream the biggest dreams you possibly could and then find a way to make it there in a way that is true to you and the passions you have,” Schmiegelow said. “We all hit lots of road blocks along the way, but if you stick to your goals, there’s always a way to get there.”
Edited by Katherine White | firstname.lastname@example.org