University of Wyoming researcher Emily Beagle likes to set things on fire.
Specifically, she puts otherwise unused biomass — such as beetle kill wood — under the flame to test its combustion characteristics and potential as a fuel source.
“As an undergraduate, I was interested in what you call the traditional renewables, like solar and wind,” Beagle said. “And then I just happened to get a fellowship for more biomass combustion-related products and then it evolved from there. And also, I mean, I get to light stuff on fire, so I got lucky.”
As a mechanical engineering Ph.D. student at UW, Beagle is able to follow a passion for math and science she developed as a young child.
“A lot of the best memories I have are probably camping and building campfires,” she said. “My dad would always let either my sister or I light it and he would talk to us about how to set it up the right way so that you get the optimum amount of airflow … and how you need to have the little leaves to start it, but how you also need the bigger logs or else it won’t burn very long.”
As a Ph.D. student in a science, technology, engineering and math — or STEM — field who also happens to be a woman, Beagle’s academic trajectory is an exception to the rule.
The mechanical engineering department supports roughly 40-50 graduate students, Beagle said, but only about seven of those students are women. Two of the department’s 13 faculty are women.
The disparity is not unique to mechanical engineering, but is more common among the STEM fields, said Shawna McBride, who oversees the university’s WiMSE — or Women in Math, Science and Engineering — initiative.
“I know if you look at life sciences — any of the biology, zoology, physiology, neuroscience related fields — it’s usually about 50/50 in terms of males to females student ratios, so that’s pretty equal,” she said. “When you start looking at other departments — like engineering, computer science, mathematics — it goes down quite a bit. It’s usually 15-20 percent women.”
According to a National Science Foundation survey, 38.8 percent of doctorates awarded in Wyoming in 2015 went to women. Just two states — Alaska and Utah — scored lower.
For comparison, 43.6 and 45.3 percent of doctorates went to women in Colorado and Montana, respectively.
Jim Ahern, the university’s new associate vice provost for graduate education, said the NSF data is at odds with graduate enrollment, given UW has more male graduate students than female. The discrepancy could mean that women enter Ph.D. programs specifically at lower rates or that women are less likely to graduate from Ph.D. programs, Ahern said, but there is not yet enough data to say.
“So, there’s a lot left to explore here,” he said. “What really struck me was how low it was for Wyoming. It’s something, I think, the university recognizes is something we need to work on. But right now, I can’t tell you ‘We know the reasons why this is happening.’ We don’t know the reasons.”
A number of factors could contribute to the gender disparity among Ph.D. students, McBride said.
“There’s a lot of research that shows young women, especially, start to get turned off from science in middle school and high school even,” she said. “So even at a young age, if they don’t have good science experiences or if they don’t see female role models, it’s hard for them to picture themselves being scientists and engineers.”
WiMSE works to overcome this with its annual Women in STEM Conference, attended by more than 500 Wyoming middle and high school students each year. WiMSE also provides support, networking and professional development for undergraduate women at UW, McBride said.
Young girls and undergraduate women often have few role models because STEM departments oftentimes face a steeper gender disparity among their faculty, said Ellen Currano, Department of Geology and Geophysics associate professor.
This lack of female faculty can also discourage female Ph.D. earners from seeking post-graduation employment in the department as faculty themselves, Currano said.
“Looking at the undergraduate populations, they’re pretty close to 50/50,” she said. “Grad populations are also quite close to 50/50, but the big change is once you start looking at the faculty level.”
In her own field, Currano said about 16 percent of geosciences faculty nationwide were women as of 2008.
“We are a little bit higher than that at Wyoming, but it’s not more than 25 percent of our geology faculty,” she said.
Currano started the Bearded Lady Project to address this lack of role models, a documentary film and project highlighting the work of female paleontologists.
There are several, complex factors contributing to the lack of women in certain science fields, Currano said.
“One of the really powerful factors, I think — and one we’re trying to combat using the Bearded Lady Project — are these implicit biases that we have about who’s good at science and what a scientist looks like,” she said. “You see this in people as young as 5 or 6.”
These biases, as present in adults as they are in children, are what drove Rachel Edie, now an atmospheric science Ph.D. student at UW, away from her undergraduate institution.
“I had a professor that just told me, point blank, that women were too emotional for science and that they shouldn’t be doing it,” Edie said. “So, I think there’s a culture and an older generation that (sees) female intellect as the exception, rather than as half the population.”
Edie said her specific department at UW has gender parity among Ph.D. students, but that this is a rarity among departments in the College of Engineering and Applied Science.
“As far as why there are fewer female Ph.D. graduates, I think there’s kind of an old guard — like a lot of old white guys, to be blunt — who are selecting students,” she said. “And they are less likely to bring in female graduate students.”
Cultural and internalized expectations continue to affect women after they have made it into Ph.D. programs, said Jessica Sutter, Department of Physics and Astronomy Ph.D. student.
“I’ve heard this from other women as well — and this is kind of a generalization — but a lot of times, women are more likely to feel like they have to be perfect at everything and they can’t say ‘no’ to things and they have to do everything,” she said.
Women might need more positive support than male-dominated science fields are used to providing, Sutter said.
“Science can be a field where you get really bogged down in negative comments,” she said. “There’s a reason for it: people are going to point out what you’re doing wrong so you can improve it. And that’s good, but I think it can be just as important to point out what a student is doing right, regardless of gender.”
Positive feedback — and making a conscious effort to point out the contributions women have made to science — could go a long way to support and encourage women pursuing science Ph.D.s.
UW Chief Diversity Officer Emily Monago agreed that most must be done to improve gender parity in the Ph.D.-to-faculty “pipeline.”
“I don’t think there’s anything intentional about excluding women,” she said. “But I do know there needs to be more effort and support to help women … especially for some programs.”
Monago, who started at UW in July, is in the process of meeting with various constituencies on campus, convening a Council on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and further developing and supporting initiatives around campus that focus on recruitment, hiring and retention of diverse faculty and staff.
“I think there’s a lot of great things happening,” Monago said. “And we’re building on these opportunities to really help move our initiatives forward. It’s on so many faculty members’ radar that this is an issue for the university. Many faculty recognize that there are some opportunities there to address that. And we’re working together to try to address that.”
The situation shows signs of improving at UW, Currano said.
“Something else that’s incredibly cool is that we have a female president, provost and College of Arts and Sciences dean, so I think this is a pretty rare situation in higher education,” she said. “And I think I have a lot of wonderful male colleagues here who recognize that our science departments should not be all white men. They’re cognizant that the issue exists here.”
Currano’s department made a recent commitment to consider gender parity and diversity during its hiring process.
“The geology department just decided to adopt a department-wide statement on diversity and inclusivity,” she said. “And we are going to ask future hires to write a statement about how they can contribute to this part of our department.”
Closing the gender gap among faculty could also close the gender gaps among Ph.D. students, Edie said.
“My day-to-day is very positive compared to what I think other departments are like,” she said. “The one big thing that exists in the entire engineering college is the lack of female faculty. Although we’re encouraged by our advisers, we don’t really have any role models of women succeeding in our field, in our college.”
Beagle, who had a male adviser for her master’s degree, now works with assistant professor Erica Belmont, who is one of the two female mechanical engineering faculty members.
“Now that I have her as a mentor, it’s really shown me the advantages to that,” Beagle said. “And so now that I have that, I realized what I was lacking and how much that has done for me since. It’s so powerful just to see that a woman can be a very, very successful faculty member.”