Women’s empowerment in STEM at MVHS

This year’s international women’s day slogan Break the Bias celebrates women everywhere — breaking glass ceilings and finding ways to collectively empower themselves in institutions and systems of sexism. 

STEM fields house many such ceilings; women hold only 26% of tech sector jobs. In software-related careers, women systemically make 93 cents to the dollar of a man — and such deeply rooted sexist practices have often served to exclude women from STEM fields. 

Across the world, however, women are working to break the barriers they face in STEM-related areas — and at MVHS, female students continue to empower themselves in the same way. Senior Jana Woo, president of MVHS’s Girls Who Code club, recalls her own experience navigating the isolated environment of her AP Computer Science A class as a sophomore. 

“In sophomore year, I went to my CS A class and I saw 5 girls out of the 30 [students],” Woo said. “So it’s just a little scary sometimes, and I feel like for some girls it’s hard [to] see that and continue to go to [the] class [rather than] drop it.” 

Senior Madeline Choi, who is the president of MVHS’s research club, concurs with Woo’s sentiment, as her experience at research conferences has proven a real disparity in feminine representation.

“Something I definitely notice whenever I go to science fairs is that in my history of four years of competing, I’ve only had two to three female judges,” Choi said. “Even when I’m presenting to a panel, it’s mostly male judges.”

In their leadership roles, both Woo and Choi have attempted to build safe spaces for women in STEM, breaking the bias for not only their own involvement in science but paving the way for their peers. Woo describes the community she seeks to create at Girls Who Code, inviting all female-identifying students to pursue computer science. 

“As president of Girls Who Code, I try and provide a very inclusive environment, and try to create a welcoming environment, so girls feel like they can like participate and they’re not being suppressed or judged by anyone in the room,” Woo said. “My entire journey in STEM has been with Girls Who Code — and it’s helped me feel like I [can] raise my hands and speak my about my thoughts, and it’s given me the courage to do what I want in STEM rather than feeling discouraged.”

Photos from the recent Girls Who Code meeting. Woo and her fellow officers hosted a guest speaker to introduce the basics of coding to MVHS students; at most meetings, they teach fundamental coding concepts to their members.

Choi strives to create a similar environment in research club, and describes that she sees increasingly equal representation within the club as a result of more and more exposure for women in STEM.

“If we want to talk about research club itself, we [currently] have a very healthy mix of both girls and boys, whether it be the officer team or the members themselves,” Choi said. “But even just five years ago, Mr. Birdsong [told me] that you would only see five to six girls in physics C classrooms. The fact that that was so recent speaks a lot to how many little things we need to start noticing and acknowledging about female representation to improve it.”

Kavita Gupta, who currently teaches the new “Equity Deconstructed” STEM class, has been a chemistry teacher for most of her tenure at MVHS. Gupta describes the difference she sees between chemistry, biology, and physics when it comes to female representation.

“I think gender disparities are more visible in physics at the advanced level. So while it used to be lot more males than females, that disparity is not as visible in biological sciences or in chemistry anymore,” Gupta said. “I think part of that is that physics is very math based, while life sciences are more conceptual — and girls face a lot of exclusion in math-related areas.”

On a national scale, Gupta has witnessed an even greater disparity in STEM, particularly in her collaboration with teachers across the US. 

“Having served as an organizer for many National Science Teachers Association conferences, when I look at the National intersection, the gender bias in STEM is definitely is well and alive,” Gupta said. “Have we broken glass ceilings? Not yet. Women still have to be twice as good or better than men to achieve parity today.”

Creating an equal 50-50 balance between women and men in all STEM fields will certainly take time, but Woo, Choi and Gupta all remain firm that systemic change is necessary. 

“I think to create change at a corporate level, we need to continue to not only have more women joining the movement, but also all people in general,” Woo said. “Just because the movement is about women doesn’t mean its exclusively for women. I think everyone needs to join in and support it.”

Gupta shares Woo’s sentiment, describing that achieving equality in STEM is urgent and necessary.

“Are there more opportunities today? Yes. But are we there yet? No. Have we started bringing it to attention? Yes,” Gupta said. “But acknowledgement is only the first step. We need to have policies and research for motivating girls in STEM fields to create that change we desperately need.”

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