Women at work: female engineering majors at GSU

Nadia Dreid

Growing up, Beverly Hairston never got the idea that girls couldn’t do everything boys could. In a family of mostly girls, Hairston was expected to help do anything that needed to be done.

“Me and my sister, my mom always made us [help],” Hairston said. “‘I need you to fix this. I need you to move this.’ I actually enjoyed doing a lot of those things for my mom when she would ask me.”

Now Hairston is a senior construction management major who wants to build things for a living and hopes to own her own construction company. As a woman, however, this makes her part of a small group. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, women earned only 9.8 percent of the construction management bachelor’s degrees awarded in the 2011-2012 academic year.

Hairston isn’t surprised by those numbers – in many of her classes, she’s the only girl.

Girl in a boy’s world

“This semester, I’m the only girl in one class,” Hairston said. “When I first started, I was the only girl for all my classes unless I was taking something outside of my major.”

There has been a public push lately to bring more women into science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. According to the National Foundation of Science, 66 percent of fourth grade girls enjoy science and math – but those interests don’t translate into college majors and careers, with women earning only 20 percent of bachelor degrees in STEM fields.

Hairston said she came into the major knowing there would be a gender gap, but not how large it would be. She thinks that worked in her favor.

“It probably has helped me not knowing the numbers,” Hairston said. “For those girls who do know the numbers and who are possibly interested, that would be one of the main fear factors.”

The novelty of being one of the only girls in class can also become tiresome, said senior civil engineering major Callie Stiles.

“Some professors will treat you differently – like sometimes they make jokes about me being a girl,” Stiles said. “They’re light-hearted jokes, they’re not offensive – they’re just kind of annoying after a while. Yes, I realize I am a girl. Thank you.”

Where are all the girls?

Girls make slightly better grades than boys in math and science in high school, but consistently assess their abilities in math to be lower, according to the American Association of University Women (AAUW). By the time girls start college, only 15 percent plan to major in a STEM field.

However, girls are making strides, particularly in the physical sciences. In 2006, women received half of the bachelor’s degrees in chemistry and a majority of the bachelor’s degrees in biology, according to the AAUW.

Some women think their gender gives them an advantage in their male-dominated fields. Stiles said that being a woman in a sea of men makes her stand out, which is important when interviewing for jobs.

“I already stick out, so I’m already memorable to the recruiters,” Stiles said.

Stiles also thinks that women have certain strengths that could help improve STEM fields, particularly in engineering.

“Women are very meticulous. We pay attention to every detail, which is important in engineering,” Stiles said. “Say I was constructing a building, but I neglected one column. That one column could lead to the entire place collapsing.”

Woman can provide an important balance in the workplace, Hairston said.

“Everything needs a clear balance. If you let a woman come into that role, you would see a different structure,” Hairston said.

And men want more women in the field too, Hairston said.

“A lot of them came into it not knowing there would be no women,” Hairston said. “They have conversations with the few of us and they’re like ‘Why doesn’t anyone else join? What do we have to do to get more girls to be a part of this?’ and it’s a huge question mark.”

To help create a sense of community, Hairston is in the process of co-founding Women in Construction, an organization for women in the major and those who may be interested, so they won’t feel alone. Women shouldn’t avoid a field they’re passionate about because of their gender or fear of being perceived a certain way by men, she said.

“They’re humans just like me,” Hairston said. “They do the same exact things that I do, so why can’t I be seen just as they’re seen?”