Katharyn Duffy Woods knew she always wanted to be involved in science. As a child she was fascinated by the outdoors and the natural world.
In high school she taught an outdoor class to elementary school students, and she originally studied medicine in college before deciding to pursue geology and climate research.
Woods, a doctoral candidate at Northern Arizona University, where she also received a master’s degree, works as a researcher in climate science and solutions at the university.
However, Woods said finding female scientists to look up to in her field can be challenging.
“I make an effort to have women as role models,” Woods said. “My mentor here is a woman, and having female scientists around has helped to show me the different perspectives and backgrounds women can bring to science, not necessarily better or worse, but just different.”
Woods estimates that about 95 percent of her instructors have been male, and she and other women are generally the extreme minority in her classes, which are usually about 80 percent male.
“I can’t tell you how many classes I’ve been in where I’m one of three or five women in a class of 20,” Woods said. “That’s been my experience throughout my career in science.”
Woods said that while her advisers in school experienced outright discrimination, she and her peers struggle to find many role models who are established in their fields.
“It’s important to see a woman where you want to be,” Woods said. “If you look at the field and it’s all males, it can be hard for a female student to see herself in those jobs.”
NAU ABOVE AVERAGE
However, NAU continues to enroll higher percentages of women in the science fields than the national average, despite small declines in the most popular majors.
Over 41 percent of all students enrolled at the NAU College of Engineering, Forestry and Natural Sciences for the spring 2015 semester were women, consistent with enrollment for the last two years, according to enrollment data provided by the university.
Nationally, women have made up about 28 percent of people involved in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields in the last decade, said Diana Elder, the associate dean of the College of Engineering, Forestry and Natural Sciences at NAU.
Elder said more women tend to study biological sciences, with fewer studying physics and mechanical engineering.
“All disciplines have a role to play,” Elder said. “If you look at the data for long term trends we have been making improvements, but there are certainly disparities through time.”
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According to the National Science Foundation, while women represent about half of the college-educated workforce, national trends show that women remain underrepresented in most STEM fields, and in some cases, gaps have increased.
Even NAU, whose enrollment statistics fare better than national averages, has experienced some declines.
Biological sciences, the largest department in the college and the most popular science field for women, decreased in female enrollment by about 1 percent, Elder said.
However, about 64 percent of all students majoring in biology at NAU are women, higher than the national average of around 48 percent. Nationally, no science field was comprised of more than half women.
According to the National Science Foundation, less than 13 percent of engineers nationally are women, with mechanical engineering including the lowest percentage of women, at about 7 percent. NAU’s enrollment in mechanical engineering was slightly higher, at around 13 percent for women.
However, students enrolled in a certain major may change their minds during school, meaning the number of students in a department may not represent the same number of people entering the workforce in those jobs.
MORE STEM JOBS
Flagstaff STEM City coordinator Mindy Bell said Flagstaff has always been a community surrounded by science and technology jobs, which makes it an attractive place for future scientists.
“We have a lot of STEM jobs here, and our focus with STEM City is to translate STEM into the community to gain interest from kids in school,” Bell said.
Bell said by attracting more students to STEM fields, the quality of education in the community improves as a whole.
"It's a cycle," Bell said. "If there are more STEM jobs here, more people in those fields will want to live here, and more students who live here will want to study in those fields, and can bring more business here."
Elder agreed, and said NAU enrollment also benefits from the city's many science and technology projects.
"Flagstaff is a community that values STEM fields in general," Elder said. "We have a tradition of organizations that are STEM focused, and that is really helpful for the university and the city."