three female students pose for portraits in a composite images
Title IX and other efforts have brought more women into STEM fields, but female students don't always see those gains in the classroom.

When sophomore Sarah Frankel walked into the iSchool on the first day of classes in Spring 2021, her “jaw dropped.” In a class of 30 students, Frankel was one of eight women.

“When I go into my classes and I don’t see someone who at least somewhat looks like me, I get really uncomfortable,” said Frankel, an Information Management, Public Health, and Accounting major. “When I walked into that class, I was like: ‘Do I belong in the iSchool? Do I belong in this class?’

While STEM tracks like pre-med have seen an increase in gender diversity, majors involving computer science and data analytics still attract few women. Frankel and her female colleagues in those fields will enter professions still dominated by men. But they’re also part of a growing trend of women entering science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. These current-day trailblazers will help push STEM professions closer to gender equity, continuing the trend since Title IX became law in 1972. In the five decades since, the percentage of women in STEM fields has gone from just 8% in 1970 to 27% in 2019, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. 

More Women in STEM

The percentage of women employed in STEM jobs is three times what it was prior to Title IX being enacted in 1972.

Despite these gains, that still means women represent less than a third of the workforce in STEM fields, and women can often feel outnumbered.

In one of her major courses, Frankel said that her professor “was really condescending” any time a woman would ask a question.  Again, men dominated the classroom, and Frankel said her professor would often “mansplain” concepts. 

“I’m definitely intimidated when I see that my classes are a higher proportion of male than female because I hate when men don’t even listen to you,” Frankel said.

But she loves the work and is committed to it.

“Coding is cool; I feel like such a girl boss,” Frankel said. “I’m taking IST 263, and one of our first assignments was to create a literal website. And I did it. And I felt like I was on top of the world.”

Photo of Katarina Sako

While computer science majors still encounter a male-dominated field, the medical profession has moved faster toward gender balance. Women make up 50.5% of today’s medical students, an increase from 46.9% in 2015, the Association of American Medical Colleges reported.

For neuroscience and biology sophomore Katarina Sako, having strong and encouraging role models in high school persuaded her to go into STEM. 

Seeing women in the sciences, such as her AP Biology teacher at Tapestry Charter School in Buffalo, drove her to consider science as a future career. Now on a pre-med track, Sako recalls feeling validated by having women mentors growing up.

“I think it’s really important to see women who are not only in the field but also making a difference in it,” Sako said. “You’re seeing on their CV that they’re publishing articles and that they’re really interested in what they’re doing.”

Nidaa Aljabbarin poses for portrait

Biology senior Nidaa Aljabbarin expressed a similar sentiment. Aljabbarin, a recent immigrant from Syria, found an even gender split in many of her biology classes. But she struggled to find a willing mentor among the SU faculty. After transferring from Onondaga Community College after her sophomore year, Aljabbarin hoped to find a better support system at SU, saying she found it easier to approach her professors at OCC.

She started at OCC two years after immigrating from Syria. She was still learning English and acclimating to life in the U.S. Many of her OCC professors offered her extra office hours and additional tutoring to help compensate.

“I think it’s the culture of the school,” Aljabbarin said. “At OCC, all the professors in STEM, they were women. And … they were very, very encouraging to the students. They talked to them and had great experiences.”

She said professors at SU focus more on research and don’t have as much time to invest in their students.

“They have other goals to work on,” Aljabbarin said. “Whereas in the community college, it’s their focus to work with the students and have the students have a better experience.”

Photo of Isabel Cardoso

A lack of women mentors forces students to become their own mentors.

First-year civil engineering student Isabel Cardoso never had any women mentors growing up. Cardoso said she has always had an interest in math and other STEM classes but had to motivate herself. She sees herself having to work harder to prove her place in STEM spaces. She has joined organizations such as WellsLink, a program for first-generation students of color, to gain a support system with other students who may share her experiences. 

Cardoso has yet to find a Syracuse STEM professor to serve as her mentor. In her first semester at the university, she struggled to make connections with her professors.

“I have to work harder to be able to make an impact and have representation for future people of color and female engineers,” Cardoso said. “It’s also a great pressure. Just like being first-generation, it also acts as a con being a female in a male-dominated industry and at the same time, I’m figuring it out as I go along.”

Research shows that if Cardoso  can find a female mentor, it will help her be successful. The National Academy of Sciences reports that women who have female mentors experience a sense of “belonging, motivation, and confidence in engineering.” 

That has been Sako’s experience, and something she recommends other women seek out. 

“When you’re thinking about college decisions, it’s leaning back on all those years of having mentors who were there to push you and tell you ‘you can go far in this field,’” Sako said. “It’s just making sure that you’re surrounded by people who are supporting your goals,  especially when you’re not the majority in the field.”