A female engineer sounds off on the problems with women in STEM

By Tongji Li

This past summer has celebrated one victory for women after another. The NFL recently named the first female coach in the league’s history. Last month, Misty Copeland was named the first African American principal dancer with American Ballet Theater. The United States women’s soccer team won the World Cup and received a ticker-tape parade in New York—the first-ever ticker-tape parade in New York for a women’s sports team. And Serena Williams made some serious progress in becoming the most dominant American athlete in history.

Despite this progress and outpouring of recognition of women in the predominantly male-dominated sports world, there is still a long way to go to remove the gender bias in other industries — most notably Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, or STEM fields.

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While the women outlined above were being recognized and rewarded for their successes, Isis Wenger, a platform engineer for OneLogin, was told she’s “too pretty to be an engineer” by countless critics on the Internet. Earlier this summer, Nobel laureate Tim Hunt recounted his “trouble with girls” while speaking at the World Conference of Science Journalists. A couple of weeks earlier, Shrinivas Kulkarni, an astronomer who teaches astrophysics at the California Institute of Technology characterized scientists as “boys with toys,” erasing an entire gender’s scientific accomplishments with a single comment.

These examples, just a few of many carried out by well-educated individuals, is a startling reminder that women sometimes must work twice as hard as men to prove their intelligence, value and right to have a seat at the lab bench.

As a woman scientist, this trend troubles me. I graduated from MIT and was accepted at Cal Tech. I have studied astronomy and have topped international science fairs. I am an engineer at Chevron, and both my mother and grandmother were mechanical engineers. I am also fortunate enough that despite coming to America from China in the second grade, speaking no English, my family instilled in me a belief that I am smart and capable of anything, and that math was my conduit to success.

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They also sparked a competitive bug that pushed me to work twice as hard as any boy that knew more than me. I wouldn’t settle for second place, and still don’t. And I encourage women and girls to realize their awesomeness and not discount or underestimate their abilities.

I think back to the time when I was a child — when every child believes she or he is capable of flying and being superheroes. For far too many girls, someone or something dampens that spirit, that sense of curiosity, that dreamer. I can’t stand by and watch that happen, so I’ve started a math club at Pinole Middle School in California with support from Chevron and the goal of nurturing a love of math and fostering growth in a safe environment. In a short time, I’ve grown the program, now composed of 75 percent girls.

Through mentoring and coaching, I can see that I’m inspiring a new generation of mathematicians, technologists, engineers — and it’s life affirming.

I’m an idealist, but also a realist. I am well aware that women make up 47 percent of the total U.S. workforce but only account for 7.2 percent of mechanical engineers; that a pay gap exists in the sciences; that only 47 out of 500+ Nobel Prize winners have been women; and that women in the workplace have to provide more evidence of competence to prove themselves. And I know that deep-seated gender stereotypes and societal norms are challenging to change.

It is true that STEM is largely a boys club, with a large proportion of white men dominating the conversation and laboratories. But rather than throw up our hands, I see this as a major opportunity. Everyone learns differently, teaches differently, solves problems differently and has different ideas to contribute. Imagine if labs were equally populated by men, women and a range of ethnicities that are currently underrepresented. Imagine if the media industry showed more diversity in its portrayal of scientists. Imagine if more women led scientific institutions, held positions of power and served as strong role models to young girls. In these scenarios, the United States would close the STEM gap in no time.

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I am encouraged by the vast shift toward gender inclusion and diversity in other male-dominated industries, as well as the social media firestorms that erupted following the “#ILookLikeAnEngineer,” “trouble with girls” and “boys with toys” blunders. But there is more work to be done.

As a society, we must do better for our next generation of girls. Without our support and a shift in attitude, how will they channel their ability, perseverance and self-belief? By discarding female talent and acumen, we are also weakening our nation’s scientific competitiveness and innovative spirit. To my colleagues in the scientific community — wake up to the needed changes around you, and to my girls at Pinole and girls everywhere — never give up on your dream.

About the Author: Tongji Li, Oronite Development Program Engineer, Chevron

Tongji Li

Tongji Li is a Development Program Engineer at the Chevron Richmond Technology Center. In this role, she works at Chevron Oronite, a part of the company that develops, manufactures and markets performance-enhancing additives for the lubricating oils and transportation fuels used in cars, trucks, ships and more.

In November 2014, Tongji started the Pinole Middle School Math Club as a way to nurture a love of math among young people and to provide a fun outlet for youth who are gifted in the subject. The math club is open to all students who are interested in furthering their math skills and competing in national math competitions. Since its inception, there has been a 100 percent improvement in individual math scores and a 223 percent improvement in team scores for students participating in the club.

Tongji graduated from Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2014 with a Bachelor’s Degree in Mechanical Engineering.


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