Equal rights group tries to patch ‘leaky pipeline’

The Kentucky Girls STEM Collaborative (KGSC) at NKU is seeking to change the problem of underrepresentation of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematic (STEM) careers.

KGSC is a branch of the National Girls Collaborative Project. It serves as a platform in which leaders can discuss the different problems women face in STEM, and decide on the best plan of action to solve this issue.

KGSC offers a variety of programs such as providing mentors for girls interested in the STEM. They also organize events like “Girls Day Out”, which is an outlet for girls to explore and learn about different STEM careers.

Dr. Madhura Kulkarni, Northern Kentucky team leader of the KGSC, explained the need for equal representation of women in the STEM field.

“Bringing in women and other underrepresented groups is beneficial to our society as we tackle the sorts of issues that STEM professionals can help find creative solutions for,” Kulkarni said.

The majority of the work that KGSC does revolves around the retention rate of women studying in STEM.

According to Kulkarni, the issue of the leaky pipeline, which is when women quit studying or working in the STEM field, might be the largest identifiable reason that there is a disparity of female representation.

“There is certainly a leaky pipeline,” stated Kulkarni. “Young girls appear to be just as interested in STEM as young boys, but somewhere between elementary school and college, we start losing them and that continues up through the workforce ladder.”

There are varying theories as to why there is such a low retention rate for women in the STEM field. Maureen Doyle, a computer science professor, explains that this issue is uniquely a European and Western problem. She also dismisses the notion that women are somehow less capable than men.

“[The female representation in STEM] is something true of the Western world and that adds a layer of difficulty,” Doyle said. “This means that inherent sexism and unwelcoming environments is part of the problem. Also, the antiquated idea that women don’t have what it takes is bologna.”

In addition to KGSC, there have been multiple attempts campus-wide at helping the lack of female representation in STEM fields. Kulkarni explained that although not all of the proposals submitted by their faculty have been successful, new projects are in the works to better this problem.

Sophomore mathematics major Nicole Birkenheuer noted that there are fewer females than males in her major.

“There are definitely more men than women in the STEM program,” Birkenheuer said.  “However, I have not seen or experienced a difference in the way we are treated.”

The exact statistics on female representation in STEM majors at NKU are not yet known. However, Kulkarni is currently researching this with a group of faculty and students from biology, computer science and statistics.

According to Doyle, the retention rate projection at NKU is similar to the national average.

“NKU is very supportive of broadening its programs,” Doyle stated. “We have recently adopted a lot practices that have retained a lot of students.”

For more information on the underrepresentation of women in the STEM program and KGSC, visit their webpage at http://cinsam.nku.edu/kgsc.html