Women STEM the Tide of Male Dominance in Engineering and Science

Paula McCarter (left), Lydia Paradiso and Fatima Ali are three freshmen studying science and technology at the Dorman Honors College.

The percentage of women studying engineering in colleges is low -- just 19 percent. But at the Albert Dorman Honors College, the number of women studying science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) is about double the national average.

In 2010, women constituted 41 percent of Dorman’s freshmen class. And this year’s freshman class is 37 percent women. 

“America needs more women studying STEM fields and the Dorman Honors College recruits some of brightest young women in the country,” says Lois Chipepo-Hulin, Assistant Dean for Enrollment at the Dorman Honors College.

Consider, for example, Paula McCarter, a Dorman freshman from Delaware. She majors in mechanical engineering and says she first took an interest in engineering when she was 10. Her Girl Scout troop held a “women in engineering day” during which the girls worked on hands-on projects. Paula loved it. Her father, a computer programmer, also helped her to excel in math and science.

So when it came time for high school, Paula applied to the Charter School of Wilmington, a school focused on math and science. There, she studied robotics and engineering; her favorite class was engineering graphics, where she used AutoCAD to design “all sorts of things,” says Paula. “I decided then that I’d major in mechanical engineering in college and focus on design. That’s what I love to do.”

Some of her high school classes, physics and robotics for example, only had a few girls in them, says Paula.  But now in her honors classes at NJIT the gender divide is less apparent. 

“The Honors College has a better ratio of men to women students,” she says.  “In the past, when engineering colleges were dominated by men, women students probably felt uncomfortable.”

It would have been easy for Paula to attend the University of Delaware; it’s a short distance from her parent’s house. But whereas the mechanical engineering department at Delaware focuses on aerospace engineering, she says, mechanical engineering at NJIT offers a variety of sub-fields.. And that’s what she wanted.

“I wanted a variety of options within mechanical engineering and also the Honors College also offers challenging classes, Paula says. “ So far I’m learning a lot and having a lot of fun here.”

Merging IT and Biology

Lydia Paradiso, a freshman majoring in bioinformatics, is another example of a talented young woman studying science and technology at Dorman. 

In middle school, Lydia excelled at computing, so she applied to the Academy for Information Technology, a selective high school in Union County.  She excelled there academically, taking AP science and IT classes. She was also was editor of the school’s newspaper and president of the Science Olympiad, during which she won several awards in science competitions.  She won an achievement award from the National Center for Women in Information Technology, an award that also included a trip to visit Google’s Manhattan office. 

In high school her two favorite subjects were biology and information technology. At Dorman she majors in bioinformatics, a field in which students write software programs to support biological research.

“It’s a perfect major for me given my two interests,” says Lydia. “Most colleges only offer bioinformatics to graduate students.  But NJIT offers it to undergraduates, which is a great opportunity for me.”

When she was a girl, Lydia never noticed that more boys than girls focused on computer science.  But now, being a woman in an IT field works to her advantage, she says.  Colleges recruited her and offered her scholarships, she says, in part because she was a woman with an abiding interest in science and technology.   

“The colleges I applied tried hard to recruit me, but I liked NJIT and  Dorman the best.”

On the Fast Track to Med School

Fatima Ali earned a college degree while she was still in high school.  And she then enrolled in the Dorman Honors College with 73 credits.

That’s because she attended a selective high school -- the Academy for Health and Medical Sciences in Bridgewater, N.J. – whose students take pre-med classes at Raritan Valley Community College.  Fatima actually earned her Associates’ degree from Raritan before she got her high school diploma.

Now a freshman at Dorman, Fatima majors in biology and is in the accelerated pre-medical program.  She has a dual passion for biology and for medicine. In the past, she has shadowed doctors, volunteered at a local hospital and even observed a leg amputation in an operating room. She continues to pursue her passions by interning and writing for medical publications.

Her high school class was small: it had eight boys and 12 girls. It delights her now that women are studying and excelling in STEM fields.  In the past, women restricted their career goals to the few jobs that society dictated to them, she said.  But not now.

“It makes me feel good that women are not limited in their careers,” Fatima said.

Some STEM fields are still dominated by men, she said, because some women think they can’t invest the time that such fields require, especially if they want to run a household.

Once she graduates from NJIT and attends medical school, she intends to specialize in orthopedic surgery, a demanding specialty.

“I’ve accelerated my education, both in high school and at Dorman,” she says, “so that I can have both a medical career and a family.”

(By Robert Florida)