Graduate student Jessica Tolan may be studying science at an advanced level now, but she has come a long way from dropping a Geographic Information Systems class her senior year of high school. She switched out of the high school course after one semester, not because of any difficulty with the subject, but because she felt uncomfortable as the only girl in the classroom.
“I was the only girl, and I thought that it was weird and that I didn’t belong,” Tolan said. “There was that fear of, ‘I’m a woman so I’m not good enough.’”
Although the College of Engineering is the largest college on campus with 4,093 students as of fall 2019, only 886 are female.
As many as 61 percent of female engineers reported they felt the need to repeatedly prove themselves to get the same level of recognition as their male counterparts, according to research conducted by the Society of Women Engineers. Their worries are not unfounded — the same studies also revealed men make an average of 20 percent more than women in the engineering field, on a doctoral level.
LSU is no exception. In 2018, male instructors at the LSU School of Veterinary Medicine made an average of $9,212 more a year than their female co-workers, according to the Louisiana Board of Regents. However, the University is taking steps to close the gap with the formation of the University Council on Gender Equality and ongoing research studies regarding faculty payment disparities. And while the large majority of colleges seem to favor male faculty members, there are two notable exceptions where women were paid more on average — the College of Science and the College of Agriculture.
Currently, Tolan is enrolled in a remote sensing course similar to the one she dropped in high school. Once she finished her bachelor’s degree, she said she realized that GIS and remote sensing are useful skills that would help her further her career.
Tolan is also a member of the University’s Women in Science club, open to any undergrad or graduate women pursuing STEM majors. Tolan said one of her favorite things about this organization was how it highlights the similarities between women in STEM fields despite their different areas of study. A marine biology major, for instance, can connect with a physics major and share their experiences regarding workplace dress regulations or being one of the only females in a particular class.
The club was originally created as an outlet for women to come together, but some of the meetings are open to men so they can educate themselves on the issues women in STEM face and learn how to support their fellow female students and co-workers. Some common challenges a woman might face in the STEM field are dress codes, being the only woman in the workplace and presenting themselves in a professional manner.
“We just have to make sure we say in a strong and in a professional way that we can be taken seriously,” Tolan said. “It’s not like it’s an everyday issue. It’s not like women are constantly not taken seriously. It’s just the little things that build up, but it can really weigh women down.”
Mechanical engineering senior Gemma DiCristina echoed Tolan’s sentiments. She said it takes time to be comfortable as the only girl in the classroom or in a study group. And women are still the minority in the University’s engineering program.
“There are still not a lot of women in engineering,” DiCristina said. “In the workforce, it’s getting better, but it’s still hard to find mentors because everywhere you go there is maybe one girl that has been working for 10 or more years in the field.”
DiCristina is the president of the University’s chapter of the Society of Women Engineers, a national organization committed to developing women in both the engineering and computer science fields. The University’s SWE chapter hosts a variety of events including its annual Women Impacting Style in Engineering fashion show, which is designed to demonstrate how women can dress both professionally and fashionably in the workplace. Every year, the style show and networking dinner sees over 200 female participants.
DiCristina said she is thankful for the encouragement that her organization provides, not only to students but also to women in the workforce.
“Don’t be intimidated by how many guys are in STEM,” DiCristina said. “You will run into people who don’t believe it’s a woman’s place, but you just need to prove them wrong and be confident in your skills.”
Kinesiology freshman Isabella Davila said making connections to other women in the STEM field provided comfort and motivation during her first year at the University.
“I just surround myself with strong STEM women,” Davila said. “I picked my roommate because she was a biology major and I knew we could build each other up.”
Davila studies kinesiology in hopes of later going to PA school or medical school. She recalls being interested in science since elementary school, and was never deterred by being one of the only female students in her advanced science classes.
“If I’m the only girl in the room it gives me more motivation to be the best,” Davila said. “I’ve just always wanted to do something medical because I want to help somebody, and I feel like the medical field is the best way to do that.”
Like Davila, Tolan said she remembers developing an interest in science as early as sixth grade when she took her first oceanology class. She hopes to become a science teacher, so she can inspire students like herself who have an interest in STEM subjects but are hesitant and sometimes doubt their capabilities.
Tolan said looking back on the GIS course she dropped in high school, it was one of her biggest regrets. Although the teacher encouraged her to stay, she ended up switching into an office aid class doing secretarial work. Tolan said she wishes every young girl hoping to study STEM subjects would not let anything stop them.
“Don’t be afraid,” Tolan said. “You can go to work in a dress. You can look pretty, you can feel pretty and you can get your hands dirty, too. There’s nothing wrong with that, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.”