RU forum addresses challenges and opportunities for women in STEM fields


Hwajung Lee, associate professor of information technology, addresses the Diversity Week Forum on women in science and technology

Radford University confronted a complex issue – the challenge of engaging women in the science and technology fields – Wednesday as part of its Fall 2014 Diversity Awareness and Celebration Week.

Five RU women scientists and mathematicians discussed the local and global barriers, initiatives and opportunities for career advancement for women in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) at the event in the Hurlburt Student Center Auditorium.

The forum was titled "The Gender Gap: Where the Girls Aren't" and it was chaired by College of Science And Technology Dean Orion Rogers. Panelists were:

  • Donna Boyd, professor of anthropology and co-director of the RU Forensic Science Institute
  • Christine Hermann, department chair and professor of chemistry
  • Hwajung Lee, associate professor of information technology
  • Sara O'Brien, assistant professor of biology
  • Jill Stewart, department chair and professor of mathematics and statistics

Beyond their academic work, the panelists brought a wide range of professional experience. O'Brien, Boyd and Lee have all been active faculty in the Summer Bridge program, RU's annual residential experience for rising sophomore, junior and senior high school female students interested in science, technology, and mathematics. Hermann is active in the local chapter of Iota Sigma Pi, national honor society for women in chemistry.


College of Science and Technology Dean Orion Rogers introduces the panel at the recent Diversity Week Forum on women in science and technology. The panel is, from left: Christine Hermann, professor of chemistry; Sara O'Brien, assistant professor of biology; Jill Stewart, professor of mathematics and statistics; Donna Boyd, co-Director of the Radford University Forensic Science Institute and Eminent Professor of Anthropology; and Hwajung Lee, associate professor of information technology.

Stewart reflected on the first step in her career as a statistician with the Tennessee Valley Authority when she was the only woman on a staff of men. "I didn't like it," she said. "I think it taught me early on to speak up and that is something everybody can do."

Lee also reflected on her "interesting" experiences as the lone female member of a department at the World Bank and teaching classes composed entirely of male students.

O'Brien pointed out the relative scarcity of women in the STEM fields, saying that in other fields, the male-female ratio is 52:48 percent. In STEM fields, that ratio is 76:24. Career earnings for women are almost $500,000 less for women than men, according to data O'Brien highlighted. Conversely, she said that women currently outnumber men in achieving undergraduate, or foundational, degrees in STEM fields.

O'Brien presented the "leaky pipeline" model to illustrate how young women are drained from STEM fields as they progress to terminal degrees and leadership positions. The "leaks" through which promising female scientists leave are lack of support, choice to follow motherhood, lack of career expectations and isolation/exclusion.

Boyd said she considered herself a minority on the panel as, during her career, her field has evolved to one currently dominated by females. She pointed out that forensic sciences has powerful media-driven role models who show how to overcome the biological, cultural, social and economic challenges facing career women in other STEM fields.

Hermann, a licensed pilot and ham radio operator as well as an educator and chemist, challenged the young women scientists to "do what you want to do, choose your dream, regardless of it being a field dominated by men." 

Lee talked about the need to look within.

"The largest hurdles I have found were those I created in my mind. If you accept the stereotypes, then you confine yourself in a little box," Lee said.

Oct 21, 2014