#IAmAWomanInSTEM Campaign Supports UK Women Pursuing STEM Careers

By Jenny Wells

(April 22, 2016) — Female students are less likely than their male counterparts to pursue careers in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math (also known as STEM), but a group of women at the University of Kentucky are trying to change that.

In partnership with the American Association of University Women (AAUW) Kentucky branch, a group of UK students, faculty and staff have launched the #IAmAWomanInSTEM initiative this semester, bringing together over 160 female student ambassadors to encourage the study of STEM and health care among women at UK and empower them to persist in those fields.

“Time and time again we hear and read about the challenges and barriers women in STEM have overcome to get where they are today,” said Margaret Mohr-Schroeder, an associate professor in the Department of STEM Education and steering team member. "While the success stories are inspiring, what about those that are facing those challenges and barriers right now? The #IAmAWomanInSTEM initiative seeks to provide a variety of opportunities for women who are majoring in STEM at UK to be supported, inspired, empowered and retained throughout their major. Our hope is that with this multimodal approach, we'll be able reach out to more women in STEM on our campus and retain and empower them as STEM majors."

In addition to the increasingly popular social media campaign around the #IAmAWomanInSTEM hashtag, the initiative focuses on a mentoring program that connects the student ambassadors with female faculty members and women in business and industry who have STEM and health care backgrounds. 

"I feel it is important for female students at UK to have a mentor and support system in STEM because the academic climate for women in STEM is not always so welcoming," said Shelby Albers, a UK senior majoring in mathematics and minoring in computer science, who serves as student leader of the initiative. "The challenges and pressures of pursuing a STEM degree are overwhelming on their own and female students often face additional barriers that add to the stress of performing well. Having a mentor in STEM allows female students to have a role model who can be a source of encouragement during these hardships as well as a resource for potential career and research opportunities."

Hasanki Warnakula, a senior biology major with a minor in chemistry, is going to medical school this fall. She became a student ambassador with the #IAmAWomanInSTEM initiative because she understood the importance of networking and wanted to be paired with a female doctor as her mentor.

"Going out and shadowing, I've gotten feedback from male doctors who are always like ‘do you really want to do this?’ and they always point out the difficulties of being a mom and being a doctor,” Warnakula said. "My mentor Dr. Holly Swanson is a physician, and she is also an associate with the med school, so she knows other female physicians and I’ve been able to connect with others through her."

"On a big campus like this it’s sometimes hard to find connections," said Meredith Bratcher, a junior student ambassador who is majoring in human health sciences. “Sometimes you can feel discouraged with yourself, so having all women around who share in your career goals is really nice."

Student ambassadors like Warnakula and Bratcher post news, events, myths/facts about women in STEM, links to resources, project progress, blog contributions and narratives using the #IAmAWomanInSTEM hashtag as an organizing tool. The ambassadors also have the opportunity to enroll in a service-learning course that provides opportunities to engage with university and community members in solving community-identified problems associated with gender in STEM-related careers, and to reflect on these experiences with peers and the course co-facilitators.

"As faculty and women in STEM, the steering team wanted to set a framework for students to build their own initiative, one that empowers women in STEM, challenges stereotypes, creates connections, and raises awareness about issues for women in STEM: the pay gap, institutionalized sexism and succeeding in male-dominated fields," said Kate Eddens, an assistant professor of health behavior and one of the founding members of the #IAmAWomanInSTEM steering committee. "Stories are powerful, and sharing stories of women in STEM — the challenges, the successes, the failures — can help women to understand that their experience is not unique. It’s a beautiful thing to see so many women empowering and supporting one another!"

"I would not typically consider myself an activist, but there was something about the #IAmAWomanInSTEM initiative that drew me in and made me want to speak out and to speak up for all that women can do in and for STEM," Albers said. “I myself have often doubted my abilities to be a successful woman in STEM, and I think many other women have felt the same way. The time has come for that negative mentality to change, and I think this initiative is a step in the right direction for empowering women in STEM and celebrating their accomplishments."

For more information, visit www.uky.edu/UGE/IAmAWomanInSTEM.

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