Paving a path for the women of STEM

Betsy Kling.

Maria McGinnis

Women make up half of the college-educated workforce in the United States, but only 29 percent of the science and engineering workforce. In 2016, only 35 percent of chemists in the field were women, according to the National Collaborative Girls Project. In 2018, women represented only 47 percent of the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) workforce. The male counterpart, however, accounted for 72 percent of scientists and engineers in the field in 2018.

Women remain underrepresented in STEM fields although there is no significant difference in their abilities to succeed in math or science. However, studies have shown that men and women differ in their interest and confidence in STEM subjects. Despite these statistics, women continue to study STEM and pursue careers in what is typically a male-dominated workforce. Some of these successful women shared their stories of accomplishments, their experiences in STEM and advice they would give to females wanting to join their career field based on their experiences.

Betsy Kling, the WKYC Chief Meteorologist 

Ohio native Betsy Kling has been forecasting the weather at WKYC in Cleveland since 2003. In 2008, she became Cleveland’s first female chief meteorologist.

Kling received seals of approval from the American Meteorological Society (AMS) and the National Weather Association. She has also upgraded her AMS seal to the prestigious Certified Broadcast Meteorologist accreditation.

In 2018, WKYC came to her to begin a multi-platform, multi-year initiative to encourage and promote girls and women in STEM — “Growing Curiosity: Girls in STEM.”

“We specifically are finding out that girls in STEM is an area that needs some encouragement. I immediately was like, ‘I’m in let’s do this,’” she said. “We have been embraced by so many women and companies in the community that are offering up their women and saying, ‘Oh my gosh, you have to know about what we’re doing,’ and that has really been cool.”

For Kling, it has been very rewarding to get the word out about how cool STEM careers are and expose the community to all of the “pretty amazing women doing pretty amazing things.”

“It’s been the most rewarding to see and hear from women in STEM careers who are saying, ‘Thank you for saying something, because I never had anybody who would say that for me,’” she said. “You don’t have to be a geek or a nerd. There are some very fashionable, very cool ladies who are geeks and nerds and I think people are starting to understand that now. I think I’m probably the biggest geek and nerd there is.”

Kling has especially enjoyed visiting schools to talk about STEM to encourage girls and get them interested in the field.

“It’s a cool thing when I go into a school and I see a girl that’s kinda shy and hanging back a little bit. I start to talk about science or math or engineering and their eyes start to twinkle,” she said. “It’s like ‘OK, she’s got the fire, she’s cool.’”

She advises women in STEM to not focus on the lack of diversity in the field and to continue moving forward, saying that it if girls understand they need to, “go, go, go,” it will do nothing but propel them forward if they work for it.

Kling has found a psychological background to these issues of underrepresentation in her work with Girls in STEM and a stereotypical start to her work. 

“Men were in those STEM fields and women just never got into it because they were ‘supposed to stay at home,’” she said. “But then there were the pioneers in the fields who blasted through that glass ceiling anyway and they set us up for the successes we’re having now.” 

Kling had mothers of boys coming up to her and asking “Why is it not called Boys in STEM?” Out of curiosity and interest in this mindset, she began to look into the psychological side of the differences between boys and girls in relation to pursuing the STEM field.

“Boys naturally try to dominate their peers — that is just the way boys are,” Kling said. “They see a challenge and they want to tackle it. Girls see a challenge and they hang back to see what everyone else is going to do. So rather than dominating their peers, they’re looking for affirmation from their peers.”

This idea instilled in these girl’s heads can make it hard for them to excel in the areas they may be skilled in.

“So they think they hate math when they have no problems in math,” Kling said. “They just have this psychological nugget in their head that math is hard when they may have an absolute gift for it they haven’t explored.”

Kling believes eliminating that fixed mindset starts in the classroom. 

“(Teachers) are not holding the students back,” Kling said. “If you’ve ever stepped foot in a classroom, the teachers will bend over backwards to help these kids. And they really try to identify those who need an extra helping hand and give them that helping hand.”

Unfortunately, the focus in most schools forces the burden upon teachers to teach to test rather than teach skills, and they’re suffering with that, she said.

“It’s not just teachers that are suffering, but it’s our children that suffer. So I think there has to be a focus that’s turned on education itself. Specifically from the statehouse down to the administrators,” Kling said. “It has to be a grassroots effort where people get behind their teachers and they say, ‘Look, you need to help these people and this is will help my student.’”

Laura Leff, the Chair of the Department of Biological Sciences and a biology professor

Leff came to Kent State 25 years ago as an assistant biology professor. She worked her way up and became a full-time professor and chair of the department of biological sciences.

Leff received the university’s Outstanding Research award, has spent ten years editing a major journal in her field and has received several extramural grants from places like NASA and the National Science Foundation.

“The other things I would say in terms of my (favorite) accomplishments, is just having mentored a lot of undergraduate and graduate students,” she said. “I’ve had many students come through my laboratory and earn their Ph.D.s and go on to their own kind of professional careers in the future.”

Leff has found that one of the main things you need to succeed in science is a fair amount of resilience.

“Let’s say I’m applying for a grant; I may not get it but I’ll definitely learn from the process,” she said. “(It’s about) being able to be committed to do the research, because it can be boring and tedious sometimes and things don’t go right.”

Leff highlighted the importance of feedback from other people in the field to help accomplish tasks and learn.

“All the things we do as scientists, people learn. So they learn how to do lab work, they learn to do statistics, they learn to make graphs, write papers and give presentations,” Leff said. “So if people are aware that it’s a learning process and they’re able to take that feedback and think about how to improve, I think that’s the most important thing.”

She also recommended both undergraduate and graduate women interested in STEM join Kent State’s Scientista organization. The group meets biweekly and attends several events, even at the national level.

“Scientista is really focused on women in STEM,” Leff said. “It’s a good way to learn from each other and network with people.”

Christie Bahlai, a computational ecology-focused biology professor

Christie Bahlai began teaching at Kent State in 2017. She has a very broad background and focuses on bringing interdisciplinary work and data science into ecology.

“I knew I wanted to be a scientist growing up, but I didn’t really know what that meant,” Bahlai said. “I knew I liked discovering new things, but there’s a variety of different ways you can be a scientist. It just turns out that the academic path worked out for me because of course you have to pay the bills, too. Being a scientist is great, but you need someone to pay you to do it.”

Although Bahlai had an interest in science from a young age, she had trouble finding her niche as an undergraduate physics student.

“I started applying to jobs in labs all over campus and it was the entomology lab that called me back first, so I started rearing flies for a grad student and suddenly life made sense,” Bahlai said.

Bahlai advised students to not be afraid to try. She said she has frequently noticed this fear in her female students especially. 

“It’s a complete mindset change when you’re getting into practicing science because failure is such a huge part of science,” Bahlai said. “You try something and it doesn’t work so you have to think about why it didn’t work rather than, ‘well it didn’t work, so I’m not good at this.’”

Bahlai said having the ability to problem solve and refrain from staying discouraged is important to progressing in the science field.

“I think a lot of women in particular have been trained with the fixed mindset that, ‘I’m either good at this, or I’m not,’” Bahlai said. “And breaking that down is huge for getting them to be practicing scientists.”

Elizabeth Herndon, an environmental geochemist and a geology professor

Elizabeth Herndon became an assistant geology professor at Kent State five years ago.

She describes becoming a professor as a very long process, but it’s an accomplishment she’s very proud of.

“For me, I take pride in being a good educator both in teaching my classes and advising graduates and undergraduates in their research,” she said. “As a researcher, the mark of successful research is publishing papers and getting grant money you can use to fund your research.” 

Herndon has published a number of research papers she is proud of and has also received several notable grants.

Last year, she received a grant from the National Science Foundation — the highest award that an early-career scientist can get. 

As a woman in STEM, Herndon is aware of the common underrepresentation in the field and has spent time reading on the structural issues regarding retaining women in STEM.

She said that it certainly depends on the STEM field in regards to underrepresentation.

“There’s a few different levels of what drives that underrepresentation,” she said. “There’s this concept called the leaky pipeline, which basically says that there are fewer women as you get to higher levels of your career.”

One of the ideas this theory focuses on is that there are not enough girls going into STEM.

“There are a lot of programs trying to get girls interested in STEM and encourage them that they can be scientists as well, which I think is great,” she said. “There is definitely evidence that at a very young age, girls are getting the impression that they’re not as smart or capable as boys. I think that combatting those misconceptions at an early age is very important.”

Herndon has found that at the professional level there are still several women who are excited about STEM fields, but there can be a lot of things along the way that can discourage them.

“There are also structural issues like lack of parental leave policies for both parents after having a kid that can push women out of STEM, and also poor spousal hiring policies,” she said.

Herndon found that a lot of people going into the sciences have spouses that are also looking for a job in the field. If an institution can not accommodate the spouse, sometimes these people are forced to turn the job down and look elsewhere.

“I think that if we’re going to improve the number of women represented in STEM fields, then there has to be changes to some of these institutional policies so that more women are retained,” she said. “The more women that are retained, the less problems you’re going to have with things like harassment, and you’re just going to create a better culture overall.”

Fortunately for Herndon, she never had the experience of being the only woman in the room, even in a typically male dominated field like the Earth sciences. 

She recommends women, or anyone that feels underrepresented in their field, to seek out others who feel the same way.

“This can be at your institution. Or, one of the great things about social media is that you can connect with people like that across different institutions, and having a support network is one of the best things you can do,” she said. “Everybody needs a support network and developing that has shown to be really helpful in increasing retention.”

Herndon also advises anyone with an interest in the STEM field to get involved in research outside of class early on.

Kent State also has programs geared towards improving undergraduate education and involvement while encouraging research, such as the SURE program.

“It’s a summer paid internship to do research,” Herndon said. “There’s also a program more similar to a work study program so students with demonstrated financial need can be paid to work in a lab by the university.”

Kelsen LaBerge, an aeronautics professor

Kelsen LaBerge graduated with her bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering in 2004 from Ohio Northern University and returned to school to earn her Ph.D. in 2009.

LaBerge worked on various research projects, but she is drawn to the ability to inspire others as a teacher.

“Particularly, when you’re talking about engineering professors, they tend to be male,” LaBerge said. “So it’s always nice to have some female professors if you’re the only female in the room, or one of very few.”

LaBerge is still new to the role of a professor. As far as teaching being her niche, she doesn’t think she’s been in the position long enough to say.

“I haven’t gotten there yet, I haven’t been doing it long enough,” LaBerge said. “It’s a lot harder than I think I realized before going into the situation. It’s been kind of an adventure.”

Kristin Dowling, the Director of Ideabase

Kristin Dowling attended Kent State University and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in business management. With a background in entrepreneurship, Dowling’s concentrations are in marketing and advertising.

Pairing her studies with her love for working with students made Ideabase seem like the perfect fit.

“In the business world, I was often the only female around the board table,” she said. “You have to come to the table with your own validity and not put yourself in the position of, ‘Oh gosh, I’m the only female here.’ You just have to put yourself in the mindset that, ‘I’m a business person. I have every right to be here just as much as anyone else.’” 

Dowling advised women studying business or STEM to never let anyone say you cannot do something and not to be afraid.

“Everybody has something to offer and we’re all better when we have these more diverse teams,” she said. “Whether it’s male, female or racially diverse, the team is just going to be better off that way and the more we push for that diversity the better off society is going to be.”

She connected this idea of not being afraid to step up to the table to her own experience raising her daughters. She said her youngest daughter has already experienced a hesitation in her interest for STEM related fields.

“She went to a rocket launch event over the weekend and she was nervous there wasn’t going to be a lot of girls there,” she said. “The other girls are feeling the same way, and if nobody steps up and goes then nobody is going to get there to the table. I think that’s it, just not being afraid to take those first initial steps.”

She also recommended women getting into these fields keep working hard and progress in their careers.

“Keep blazing the trail, because I think we have so much to offer,” Dowling said. “We’re not going to advance without more females in these fields. We just won’t.”

Maria McGinnis  covers technology reporter. Contact her at [email protected].