Last fall, junior math major and economics minor Olenka Ashwill ‘23 became aware of a need within Wheaton’s math department: women. Only three of the math department’s nine faculty are female. Ashwill’s project groups were also primarily dominated by men.
“I wanted to join a club for women in STEM, but there was nothing like that on campus,” Ashwill said.
Ashwill reached out to two friends, Avyi Hill and Willow Noltemeyer, in the fall of 2020 and they began working together to create the Society of Women in STEM (SWS), a new club for Wheaton students.
Ashwill serves as the president of Wheaton SWS, which is also chartered by the Scientista Foundation, a national organization that supports local chapters and holds conferences and competitions to empower pre-professional women in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.
Ashwill says she took to numbers at a young age and excelled in early math classes. “Even when I did struggle with some courses in high school, I had previous confidence from middle school that carried me through it,” she said.
Like Ashwill, club co-vice president Avyi Hill, a junior applied math and Bible and theology major, took an early interest in math. “Some of my most vivid memories from elementary school are the math books,” she said. From earliest days, Emily Park ‘22, an environmental science major and urban studies minor who serves as the club’s diversity officer, wanted to be a veterinarian.
But once these women arrived at college, the obstacles for women in STEM became more evident.
“Sometimes I don’t feel like I belong here,” Hill said. “It’s a historically male-dominated space, so there’s a lot of imposter syndrome. The girls won’t speak as much in class. Or you’ll hear it when you talk to friends: ‘I don’t know if I’m good enough at math to be a major.’” Hill said the entertainment industry doesn’t help: “If you watch any Marvel movie, all the scientists will be males.”
Co-vice president Sara Amare ‘23 is a biology major on the pre-medicine track. She looks forward to being a surgeon, a field she acknowledges is very male-dominated.
“I always get mixed responses to that,” she said. “It comes from a place of concern, but I’m honestly not worried. I’m excited!”
Ashwill, who hopes to be a project manager, is more apprehensive. “I’m a little worried that I won’t be taken seriously. If I’m in a managerial position, I’m worried that I’ll have some conflict or people won’t listen. For me, I want to have that support now so I’ll have someone to speak to about how to deal with those issues. I know that’s where a lot of women in STEM fall off.”
As part of the research Ashwill and the cabinet did through the Scientista Foundation, they learned about the “leaky pipeline” model of women’s STEM careers. “It means that women fall off each career step, all the way through grade school up through Ph.D. and career,” Ashwill explained. This phenomenon was first noted in reports from the US Office of Technology Assessment in 1985 and has been repeatedly studied since then as the problem persists.
At Wheaton, 182 (56%) of 324 current undergraduate STEM majors are female—but if the “leaky pipeline” holds true, that won’t necessarily translate to more women in the STEM workforce. According to a Census Bureau report from January 2021, women make up only about 28% of workers in STEM-related fields.
“You lose women really quickly,” Hill said. “You might have a gender balance in undergrad, but in grad school the number of women drops. So you just want women to have a strong self-esteem and foundation if they pursue higher education because it gets a lot harder from here on out.”
Wheaton’s SWS chapter hopes to provide space for female STEM majors to talk about the barriers facing them.
“It is important for women to meet together regularly and discuss their experiences in science,” physics professor Heather Whitney, who advises SWS alongside biology professor Kristen Page, said in an email. “Sometimes women in science experience harassment or bias and may assume it’s just something to endure. A strong network can help you know when you need to speak up.”
Amare said the support she’s felt from people around her has made a difference.
“I’m very blessed to have supportive parents and people in [my] corner, like friends and professors. It makes you feel like you can do it.” Since not everyone has the same experience, Amare hopes that SWS can become a club that provides “that safe space, support, and encouragement.”
As diversity officer, Park’s role focuses on making sure SWS is as inclusive as possible, “not just [in] racial and ethnic diversity,” she said, “but also in diversity of backgrounds and opinions.” As an Asian American and as a child of parents who are both in the medical field, Park described her own experience as being different from other women in STEM. “[Gender and racial stereotypes] play out in a very different way in STEM than in a random encounter on the street,” Park said.
Another of SWS’ goals is to foster male allyship. Amare says this starts with helping men recognize the struggles women face in STEM. “If you’re only inviting the women to speak and come,” Amare said, “then the men don’t understand or know what’s going on.” A male math professor, Danilo Diedrichs, serves on SWS’ auxiliary board alongside chemistry professor Allison Dick and biology professor Jennifer Busch.
“Well-intentioned allies can benefit from listening and learning, so that their support efforts help the true challenges experienced by women in science, not just what they assume them to be,” Whitney said in an email.
SWS also hopes to begin outreach to communities around Wheaton College, especially in K-12 schools. “I think we should always be involved in the community we’re in,” Hill said. “A big part of [higher education] is early interest in STEM, so we want to represent that women can be in STEM in college.” An early interest in STEM can help mend the “leaky pipeline.”
“We hope to empower women,” Amare said, “not just at Wheaton but all around us as well. And we hope that after our time at Wheaton passes, this club will have a lasting effect on women here.”