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Published on March 02, 2022

Shrinking the STEM Gap

Eastern prepares a female workforce for science, technology careers



While women make up 50 percent of the overall workforce, they occupy less than 30 percent of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) jobs, according to recent data from the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics (NCSES). This “gender gap” is significant as STEM jobs are among the country's highest-paying and fastest growing occupations. Eastern is countering that trend, however, as the majority of STEM graduates in recent years are in fact women.

The same analysis by the NCSES — the “2020 Science and Engineering Indicators” report — notes that the median salary for science and engineering occupations in 2017 was $85,390, which is more than double the median for all U.S. workers of $37,690. The Bureau of Labor Statistics expects this trend to continue, with computer and mathematics occupations projected to be among the fastest growing sectors this decade.

Jacklyn Olivieri ’17

Eastern is doing its part to shrink the STEM gap by preparing more women for science and technology careers. In the past five years, female alumni account for 51 percent of traditional STEM majors. Including social science majors like economics, political science, psychology and sociology, women make up 61 percent of Eastern’s STEM and social sciences graduates.

Despite math and science test scores that are comparable to their male counterparts throughout their schooling, women are underrepresented in STEM occupations for a variety of reasons. According to the American Association of University Women (AAUW), some of the leading deterrents for women in the STEM workplace include male-dominated work cultures, gender stereotypes, fewer role-models and a lack of confidence.

For Environmental Earth Science graduate Jacklyn Olivieri ’17, an environmental scientist for the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM), the biggest workplace issue is gender stereotyping.

“The STEM field is mostly male-dominated, and compared to men, women can be stereotyped as less intelligent or less competent in the field,” said Olivieri. “This can lead to gender discrimination related to hiring, salary or promotions, as well as an overall lack of self confidence in women. Women may also experience social challenges because they can seem as outsiders by men in a STEM career.”

Vanessa Zetino ’20

Olivieri works in the Office of Compliance & Inspection and is responsible for investigating complaints and suspected violations of environmental laws and regulations. She gravitated toward science at a young age and was encouraged by teachers throughout her school years to keep at it.

“I realized that understanding how things work and how to put them to use to make a difference for the environment and the world is my passion and why I ended up with a STEM career.”

According to the NCSES 2020 “Indicators” report, the gender gap is most severe in engineering and computer fields. Computer Science graduate Vanessa Zetino ’20 spoke of overcoming the stress of entering a male-dominated work environment. She is now a business intelligence consultant at Travelers Insurance.

“At Eastern, I remember there was only a handful of females in my computer science classes, which was a great feeling knowing that I wasn’t the only one,” said Zetino. “That alone was enough to keep me pursuing my degree. The thought of it being a mostly male field, however, did exist in my head. Regardless of all the challenges that there are, I’m paving the way for myself and for other females pursuing a career in STEM. Now that I’m at Travelers, I’ve realized there’s a lot of diversity, and a lot of the leaders are females.”

Rathana Chanthaphone ’16

Zetino praised her faculty mentor, Computer Science Professor Sarah Tasneem, for keeping her motivated and on track. “I’m truly grateful for that mentorship and I believe having someone who you can connect to and who was once in your shoes is truly important when trying to navigate through your journey. Nowadays, I find myself giving back to students pursuing a career in STEM because I know what it’s like to be questioning your future career and the path that’s being taken.”

The notion of confidence is one that resonates with Biology graduate Rathana Chanthaphone ’16, who is a quality control analyst at Lonza, a multinational chemicals and biotechnology company. “I faced a lack of confidence, thinking I wasn’t prepared or that I lacked the right skills,” said Chanthaphone. “Without the extra push that I received from my teachers and advisors, I would not have pursued this career. They motivated me to continue to work my hardest even when times were tough. 

“I’ve always wanted to learn about what I am surrounded by in a scientific way . . . how things are developed, studied and the role they play in society,” said Chanthaphone, who also hopes to inspire a younger generation of STEM professionals. “I think it’s super important for them to understand the benefits and how it affects their lives and the world.”

Yollaine Kaja ’17

Another alumna who was spurred by her Eastern experience is Biology graduate Yollaine Kaja ’17, a microbiologist in the ORISE Fellowship Program at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Eastern greatly empowered me to fulfill my career aspirations,” she said. “The laboratory experiences and knowledge I gained through my time at Eastern provided the foundation for my career.”

Courtney Combs ’17

Kaja works in the Chronic Viral Diseases Branch on projects related to Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS). “What excites me about working at the CDC is seeing how everyone works hard to prevent and control any target that will jeopardize our globe,” said Kaja. “It doesn't matter if the threat is a bacterium, virus, systemic racism, etc. At the CDC, I am developing and applying knowledge that not only meets public health needs but contributes to public health's mission.”

Computer Science graduate Courtney Combs ’17 has found that she needs to overachieve in order to be seen in the male-dominated workplace. Combs is a software engineer at Pratt & Whitney, as well as a company commander and pilot for the Army National Guard.

“While hard work, passion and dedication have gotten me where I am today, I’ve experienced that to be noticed for my work and work ethic, I must work harder than some of my male counterparts to be equal. Although this has been a challenge, I have never become defeated by it, but instead motivated to work even harder.”

Jennifer Croteau ’19

Environmental Earth Science graduate Jennifer Croteau ’19 agrees. “There is certainly an unspoken — and sometimes spoken — pressure for women in STEM to be perfect at their job in order to show their value,” said Croteau, who is now a staff scientist at INSPIRE Environmental. “This can result in stress and experiences that make women no longer want to pursue a STEM career because they feel unwelcomed or see no potential to thrive.”

As a staff scientist, Croteau uses geographic information systems (GIS) to assist in off-shore wind farm projects. “I love working at INSPIRE because the company atmosphere is very progressive and comfortable. I appreciate being able to say I am contributing to a much larger push for renewable energy and sustainability.”

Written by Michael Rouleau