Bridging the Gender Gap

ASU’s new research unit aims to diversify science and technology fields

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By Tamara Juarez, April 2016 Issue.

Arizona State University has launched a new program to help minority women pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

The Center for Gender Equity in Science and Technology, founded by ASU associate professor Kimberly Scott, provides women of color with resources to help further their academic goals and nurture their interest in technology and science.

“Our goal is to change the STEM pipeline,” said Gabriel Escontrías, Jr., CGEST manager and ASU LGBT Devils’ Pride alumi chapter president. “We want to diversify the STEM fields and provide girls with the opportunity to make their voices heard through the use of technology.”

Because CGEST fully adheres to the university’s policy prohibiting discrimination, harassment and retaliation, Escontrías said this includes transgender students who identify as female.

“Our center is committed to advancing all girls and women of color in STEM through an intersectional and culturally responsive approach,” Escontrías said, “which, without question, includes trans girls and trans women of color in STEM.”

Within the STEM community, women continue to be severely underrepresented. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, women comprise 47 percent of the U.S. workforce, but make up only 26 percent of people employed in computer or mathematical occupations.

Asians, Hispanics, Blacks, American Indians and Alaska Natives account for a small portion of the STEM workforce, but double minorities fare far worse. In fact, as reported by the National Science Foundation, women make up less than one in 10 employed scientists and engineers while Black and Latin women make up 2 to 3 percent.

The purpose of ASU’s new center, which is a research unit of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, is to increase the number of underrepresented women in STEM by offering students the opportunity to engage in research-based programs, explore various STEM fields and connect with other minority students.

The key to raising awareness, according to Escontrías, is understanding that each minority group faces unique struggles that prevent them from having access to valuable resources.

“Most of the girls that come to us are Latinas or African-American. They come from lower socio-economic backgrounds and face unique struggles that often prevent them from entering STEM fields,” he said. “The Center for Gender Equity is giving girls who are less likely to have access to certain resources an equal opportunity to learn about science and technology.”

CompuGirls, CGEST’s leading program, focuses on bringing awareness about controversial issues through research and the use of technology. The program is geared toward girls from the age of 10 to 15, and teaches them how to code, collect data, conduct experiments and effectively disseminate information to the general public.

Mitzi Vilchis, a former CompuGirls participant and a workshop leader during the CGEST launch Jan. 11, said she is very grateful to the program.

“Being part of CompuGirls helped me become more confident and really helped my self-esteem,” she said. “Being in the classroom and presenting projects to my girls – getting to talk about issues that people don’t like talking about, such as domestic violence and alcoholism – was really inspiring. It was our safe place.”

The ASU soon-to-be-graduate said that she is very excited about the new center and the support it will provide to the future generation of young girls who wish to become engineers or computer programmers but feel held back.

“It’s empowering to have those resources and platforms available to us,” she said. “They make it possible for us to get out there and do what we want.”

The Center for Gender Equity is part of the National STEM Collaborative, supported by the White House. Last year, ASU was chosen to lead the initiative and create inclusive programs that further advocacy about underrepresented women in STEM.

Former CompuGirls mentor Jessica Williams has seen the effect that CompuGirls and CGEST has had on students and strongly believes in its mission.

“We need this program in our community, especially for minority women,” said Williams, the education and development specialist for the Greater Phoenix Urban League. “If we want this world to work, we need women. We need them in every sector of society, especially in STEM.”