Women in STEM at SRHS

Article By: Tara Elsa

March is Women’s History Month. To highlight some of the incredible accomplishments of women, March has been dedicated to learning more about women’s contributions to events in history and society.

Some of the first female engineers got their degrees in the early 1900s, only 115 years ago! To highlight the accomplishments of women this month, I talked to women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) at Santa Rosa High School.

Women in STEM. The amount of women in STEM (outside of teaching) is significantly less than men. Women in STEM get paid about $15,000 less than men on average per year. “There are things that we can offer or perspectives… that women offer in the field of science that you don’t necessarily get from the male counterparts that are in those fields,” says SRHS science teacher Brianne Brawley. Many women in STEM at SRHS believe that representation and support will help get more women in STEM careers. Photo by Tara Elsa

There aren’t many women in STEM careers (outside of teaching), but at SRHS most of the STEM teachers are women. Lila Henderson, a new science teacher at SRHS, has been teaching science for 11 years. “I genuinely love science, specifically the natural world around us. Teaching biology just enhances that passion [for me]… The hardest challenge was, and still is, balancing being a successful, engaging teacher and trying to stay up-to-date with the latest discoveries, techniques, and information available to share with my students,” says Henderson. Currently, she is going to college “to earn a second master’s degree in communication disorders,” and she really enjoys incorporating what she’s learning about the human body into her lessons for her Living Earth students. 

“When I was earning my bachelor’s degree in biology, all of my science and math courses were taught by men. At the time, I hadn’t really noticed, but reflecting back, it does now influence my current perspective. I want my female students to see representation in STEM and know that they have a place in those fields. Science is [about] collaborative dialogue, and, without women, we would be losing half of the conversation… Spotlighting more women currently in STEM, hiring as many female STEM teachers as possible at all levels of education; and creating unique opportunities for our female students, including internships, clubs, and mentorship programs focusing on STEM, [would be helpful in encouraging more women to join STEM careers],” says Henderson.

Amber Williams, a SRHS math teacher, talks about why she became interested in teaching math instead of going into a different STEM field. “I was a math and English major in college,” says Williams. “The English degree was easy, [and] the Math kicked my butt, but it’s why I decided to teach math [and] not English… I knew that because it was hard for me, I would be able to relate to students who struggle in math and always be able to teach a concept in multiple ways to help them learn a concept… My favorite thing is watching a student mature into a better student, watching them find their voice and begin to speak up.”

Lara Costanzo is a SRHS alumni and has been teaching science at SRHS for 16 years. She found a fondness for math and science during her high school years. “I have my yearbook from my senior year, and my Calculus teacher signed it on the Math Club photo and wrote ‘Where are you and the rest of the women?’ [At] the time, the Math Club had about 9 students; all male. So even though I was the very top of the Calculus class, for some reason, the Math Club wasn’t even something on my radar. I did start a science club that year (Mr. Davis was the advisor). [It] was mixed with plenty of women, but that was because I made all of my friends join! I also only had one female math teacher from 7-12th grade. Once I got to UC Berkeley, things changed, and even though most of my professors for my larger math and science classes were male, there were a lot of female professors teaching the more specialized course and a lot of female graduate student instructors. I always loved math but didn’t know what career in math sounded good to me, so I actually got my degree in Biology with [an] emphasis in Ecology,” says Costanzo.

“I spent my first three years after college doing Ecology research, and, thinking back, I realize that everyone I worked with was actually a woman! They were all professors and graduate students from UC Berkeley. Once I realized I wanted to teach, I chose math because it was really my first love. When I [was] interviewed for my job at SRHS, all 4 people on the interview committee were men, but once I was introduced to the department, I was surprised to find a pretty even balance,” says Costanzo. “I would have really enjoyed exploring the much higher levels of math but instead transitioned to biology; again, only because I didn’t know what I could do with a math degree. I think there is still not enough outreach to ALL students about what you can do with advanced math once you graduate from college… I think out-reach to all students about what you can actually do with a STEM degree is very important. And it needs to be very authentic outreach.” 

“Many people around me were surprised (and some disappointed) that I decided to teach. I heard things like ‘you’re too smart to be a teacher’ or ‘why don’t you want to be a doctor like your dad’ and most frequently ‘you can’t make any money being a teacher!’ I was pretty offended by all of these and some of these comments came from people I was very close to and respected. I am so glad that I didn’t listen to them as this is what I know I was meant to be doing,” says Costanzo.

Brianne Brawley, a science teacher at SRHS, has been working in the STEM field for 10 years and teaching for five years. “Prior to being a teacher, I was working in fisheries [and] deciding if I was going to continue in that and seek higher degrees… Fisheries specifically are a very male-dominated field; and being a younger women in that industry, you face a lot of [under] the table discrimination… So I have definitely faced more challenges working in fisheries than I have thus far working in education where there is an abundance of women… People challenging my knowledge or people challenging my abilities doesn’t come up as much in teaching,” says Brawley.

“I think the tides are turning, and a lot of young girls and young women in their STEM careers are finding that there are a lot more supports available to them, and I hope to continue to see that because most of the women I have worked with in STEM have just been so inspiring and just great additions to that field. There are things that we can offer or perspectives… that women offer in the field of science that you don’t necessarily get from the male counterparts that are in those fields,” says Brawley.

She continues. “The push for creating a more sustainable and modern educational system is so important, especially in public education… there is so much opportunity for improvement, and I think that if it comes from students; [for example, if] students want their education to be a particular way, then it will be supported by families, and it’ll be supported by taxes; and that can change the educational system [which I am most passionate about because] I love seeing students making it better.”

Currently, men in STEM make $15,000 more annually on average than women in STEM. Many of the teachers expressed their hopes for the future of women in STEM. Their hope was for equal pay among people of all genders, more support for women entering STEM careers, and more representation of women in STEM fields.

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