Sabrina Xie/Sun Graphic Designer

Cornell women reflected on their experiences succeeding in male-dominated fields of STEM.

March 23, 2021

Cornell Women Overcome Isolation, Stereotypes in Male-Dominated STEM Fields

Print More

Gender bias in academic settings directly shapes the sense of belonging that college women feel in STEM — a key factor that affects whether they will jump into related professional fields.

Women have long faced barriers to pursuing STEM as a career — as one measure, only 27 percent of all doctorates granted between 1920 and 1990 were awarded to women. Now, that number is slightly less than half — in 2019, about 45 percent of all doctorate recipients were women, according to the National Science Foundation. Despite strides in gender diversity in the sciences over the past century, research has demonstrated that increases in degrees granted to women don’t tell the whole story.

Here’s a look into the setbacks and successes that characterize the world of STEM through the eyes of trailblazing Cornell women.

Prof. Susan Brown
Courtesy of Cornell University

Prof. Susan Brown, integrative plant science horticulture: ‘At the time I went through school, it was isolating’

“We’re seeing change, but at the time I went through school, [being a woman in STEM] was isolating,” said Prof. Susan Brown, integrative plant science horticulture, and former associate dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. 

Early on in her time at Cornell, Brown said when she answered the phone in her own office, callers thought she was the secretary. When asked if Dr. Brown was in the office, she joked that she had wanted to say, “No, he’s not in.” 

Although challenged with the prospect of working in a male-dominated field, Brown grew up intimately connected with the science of apple breeding that eventually became her lifelong research. She said that her father, who was a pigeon breeder, got her hooked on the concepts of inheritance early on, while her mother, a gardener, equally passed on a love of plants.

“I love apple breeding because it is different every day,” Brown said. “Every genetics project is a puzzle with one piece missing. When you walk into an orchard of apples, everything’s different. You get to search for patterns.”

Brown’s research explores how better tasting apples can promote healthier eating, especially in children. Brown also said her apple varieties provide key insights into how glucose is broken down in the body, creating the potential for future medical breakthroughs in diabetes. 

“There’s also really amazing chemical compounds in apples that are all natural, that are effective and aid glucose metabolism,” Brown said. “They’re being looked at for diabetes research.”

Bill Ingalls/NASA

Dr. Swati Mohan ’04: ‘I had to become more direct, more succinct, louder’

As the voice of the NASA Mars Perseverance landing, Dr. Swati Mohan ’04 became what she said she lacked during her own journey — a role model to women around the world. 

“Being surrounded in a primarily male-dominated field, you get used to the different status quo of how things are,” Mohan said. “To be heard over people, I had to become more direct, more succinct, louder … just to get on equal footing.” 

Mohan’s love for space spans over three decades — when she was 9, Mohan recalled, she watched an episode of Star Trek that sparked her interest in space. However, while Mohan was always interested in science, she didn’t seriously consider a career in space research until her first physics class in high school.

Mohan said her newfound passion for space launched her into studying mechanical and aerospace engineering at Cornell. She later earned her master’s degree and Ph.D. in aeronautics and astronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and joined NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where she took on the role of guidance and controls operation lead for the Mars Perseverance mission. 

For Mohan, her career trajectory was a dream come true. 

“NASA’s awesome,” Mohan said. “It’s one of the few places where I felt at home with my geekiness for space.” 

But along the way, Mohan said enduring stereotypes as a woman in engineering and rejection from coveted opportunities hindered her path. Mohan said her experiences as a Cornell undergraduate were essential to navigating these roadblocks and achieving success in STEM. 

“I think [my undergraduate experience] allowed me to become more confident and have that backbone, [and say] ‘This is what I want. I know I want it for XYZ reasons. So I’m gonna go get it,’” Mohan said.

In the future, Mohan said she hopes that colleges will empower women to pursue their professional goals by offering enduring individualized support.

“Getting [women] into the workforce is the first step, but you have to also make [sure they have] the resources and the mentality such that they can stay throughout their career,” Mohan said. 

Mohan encouraged women in STEM to create their own opportunities to bring their career goals to fruition, even in the face of gender inequalities.

“If you have the passion for it, and that capability, you can work to make it happen,” Mohan said. “But part of that requires thinking outside the box and creating your own opportunities for the path that you want.”

While women like Mohan may be able to push through the challenges of standing out in male-dominated fields, the social pressures of male-dominant environments isolate some women. 

The Elephant in the Valley — a 2015 survey of over 200 professional women who worked in Silicon Valley — broke down these pressures that perpetuate gender inequalities in STEM. Of the women surveyed, 66 percent reported feeling excluded from social and networking opportunities because of their gender. 

According to Mohan, only 10 percent of the 2004 mechanical engineering class was female. Today, while women make up 50 percent of the undergraduate engineering students, the graduate engineering program is only 34.3 percent female. 

Courtesy of Kayleigh Furth

The experiences of current undergraduate students like Kayleigh Furth ’22, civil and environmental engineering, illuminate the obstacles that ultimately narrow the pool of engineering female professionals.

“If I am in a mostly male group, sometimes I feel like they don’t listen to anything I say,” Furth said. “There [are] slight things every once in a while that I notice. A colleague will say, ‘You know, I underestimated you at first. You’re smarter than I thought.’”

Still, Furth is not dissuaded by outside opinions and is passionate about her work. After graduating next year, Furth hopes to work at a company based in France called Glowy that produces biodegradable bulbs.

“I got to design a cidery wastewater treatment that we actually got sent to the Department of Environmental Conservation and that was pretty cool,” Furth said. “I feel like I’m going to make a difference in the world … I’m doing something for the betterment of people and the environment.”

Courtesy of Anabella Maria Galang

Anabella Maria Galang ’23: ‘While different parts of our journeys as women in STEM are variable, a lot of it at its root are the same’

As founder of The Steminist Movement, Anabella Maria Galang ’23, biological sciences, is playing an active role in breaking the structures holding back women in STEM.

“I knew The Steminist Movement was going to be the mentorship program that I’ve always wanted to have, but never did,” Galang said. “While different parts of our journeys as women in STEM are variable, a lot of it at its root are the same.”

A national nonprofit, The Steminist Movement is working to close the gender gap at a variety of levels along the STEM pipeline. Initiatives and outreach range all the way from free middle school workshops to college campus initiatives. 

“I value the people who are involved with The Steminist Movement and their tremendous capacity to make a very intimate difference in the lives and in the mindsets of young girls,” Galang said.

For Women’s History Month, Galang’s organization held a two-part seminar series to tackle discussions about the challenges facing women in STEM today.

“I hoped that [through these talks] other people would have the same epiphany that I did,” Galang said. “That, we all have the little nagging voice in our head at the end of the day, wondering if we’re good enough to do what we’re doing. And it’s all about waking up the next morning and saying, ‘Yes, I am.’”