A recent discovery that I have made is that my major, chemistry, is comprised of 48% women at the University of Kentucky (UK Analytics). This actually comes as a surprise to me; I thought the percentages were much more skewed. I guess it just takes a quick data check to confirm that I am in fact ~not alone~. This misconception led me to do another quick data check of chemistry graduate school demographics. According to the American Chemical Society, women make up 27.4% of all chemistry graduate programs—that’s quite a drop. Why are women less likely to continue their studies in graduate school?
This month, I have been focusing on the camaraderie that is necessary for personal interest and encouragement in STEM. A STEM course load is not easy. As I have transitioned from introductory chemistry courses to upper-undergraduate and graduate chemistry courses, I have discovered that they only get harder. I am noticing now that I make jokes more frequently on how college has “humbled” me and that achieving B’s can enormous feats sometimes (I recently mentioned this to a professor and they responded with, “...but you should actually go for A’s...”). Without a relatable group of people, these jokes and woes will go unheard. In addition, it can be hard to understand that you aren’t the only one who struggles in school.
Now, camaraderie comes in. After doing poorly on an exam or not quite understanding what was just taught in class, it is always nice to talk about it with another student. However, it can be difficult for me to publicly express my hardships in school. This difficulty depends less on my personal ego than it does on my contribution to the general impression of women in chemistry. If I have a question in a male-dominated class, like differential equations (where the ratio is about 6:1 male to female), I will not ask it because I fear that my question will imply that women taking differential equations can’t keep up.
Without asking questions in class, I must base most of my education on textbooks and the trusted words of scientific acquaintances. By associating myself with a group of like-minded individuals, the role of being a student becomes much easier. “Katie, what you are describing is just friendship.” This description of camaraderie spans a bit further than friendship, however. As women gain more traction in science, camaraderie means that we will support each other through the hard classes, the graduate school applications, and the occasional sexism in group projects. Reaching out to the kid we sit next to in class but have never talked to and organizing study groups are effective ways to enforce camaraderie.
On campus at the University of Kentucky, there are many clubs and academic fraternities that reinforce this type of camaraderie. Of course, #IAmAWomanInSTEM is a great initiative that allows women to collaborate and discuss their college experience. Monthly meetings allow STEM women across campus to support each other in their scientific endeavors. In addition, UK has a large selection of academic fraternities and clubs like STEMcats and Feminist Alliance that encourage these types of relationships. By being open with each other and working together to learn, hopefully women will feel more encouraged to continue their studies in STEM.