Women earn less than men in Nebraska, in part because the types of jobs women gravitate toward tend to have lower salaries. Two high-paying careers in particular have garnered a lot of attention for their gender disparities, but only one for the reasons you might think.
It’s lab time for computer science students at Southeast Community College in Milford, Neb., about 30 miles west of Lincoln, and the room is filled with the staccato clicks of computer mice and keyboard buttons.
Emma Lehman confers with an instructor toward the back of the room. The 25-year-old is in her last quarter at SCC, and is one of only three females in the 26-student program.
“They always put me on posters, and the website and stuff,” she said, laughing embarrassedly.
That 10 or 11 percent ratio at SCC holds true across computer science and information technology programs at Nebraska colleges and universities; nationally, estimates range from around 12 to 18 percent.
But these low rates are relatively new.
“When I was in college in the late 70s, my class was about half and half female and male,” said SCC computer science instructor Roxanne Stutzman. “So we’ve not always had this disproportionate amount of male and female students."
Female computer science students share their experiences
Amanda Halek, 22, works in the computer lab at the Southeast Community College campus in Milford, Neb. (Photo by Hilary Stohs-Krause, NET News)
Why they chose computer science:
Emma Lehman, 25, chose to study computer science after graduating from a liberal arts university with a degree in Russian in the midst of the recession. She said she was attracted by the high salary and strong job market for computer science majors.
Amanda Halek, 22, also took some classes at a traditional four-year university, and was likewise troubled by the prospect of finding work after she graduated. Her love for the computer game Minecraft first sparked her interest in computer programming.
On being the only women:
Lehman, Halek and fellow student Allie Homan, 18, said they've never felt they were treated differently by their male students, though Lehman talked about the occasional "locker room" atmosphere.
"They don't treat us like girls," Homan said. "They just treat us like another human being."
The impact of having female instructors:
All three said having female instructors has been very helpful for them.
"That's been kind of the blessing of going here," Lehman said. "They're all just really approachable and really easy to talk to. ... I feel like they really want me to succeed, because I am a woman, just to show that it's not impossible."
Challenges they anticipate in the future:
I think the stereotype that's associated with programming is definitely the 40-year-old man that lives in his mother's basement," Halek said, "and it's one of those fields where, as a woman, you feel you're not going to be taken seriously."
She gave her mother as an example, who's worked in IT for decades; when her mother starts a new job, Halek said, she doesn't wear makeup or traditionally feminine clothing "because they won't take her seriously. They just assume she doesn't know what she's talking about because she's a woman."
The three said they're prepared to deal with sexism and stereotypes and plan to take criticism "with a grain of salt." But Lehamn said she's determined to be part of the change that turns the tide for women in computer science.
“There may be some intimidation issues, I think, with females sometimes,” Stutzman said. Referring to herself and the other SCC computer science faculty, she added, “But we, of course, are very aware of that.”
The “of course” is because all four SCC instructors are women: Stutzman taught Hildy Dickinson, who was later hired on as faculty, and they both taught their now-colleagues Julie Kohtz and department chair Beth Stutzman.
Female students said having women instructors made them feel much more comfortable, and the instructors said their presence accustoms male students to having female supervisors and to seeing strong women in computer science.
The staff has been all-female since 1999 – around the same time the number of female students really took a nosedive, plunging 79 percent from 2000 to 2011 alone.
Experts list various factors as contributing to the downturn of female computer science students, including a glut in the market caused by Y2K fears coinciding with a booming healthcare industry.
“There was a big demand for nurses, and so I think a lot of women saw some opportunity that way,” Beth Stutzman said. “At SCC, we have a lot of different programs that are health-related, … (and) we saw those pick up and have waitlists to get into the programs.
“We used to have a waitlist,” she added. “We saw ours dwindle.”
Nursing has traditionally been a female-dominated industry, while higher-paying healthcare jobs like physicians and surgeons have been traditionally male-dominated. But as the healthcare industry rapidly grows, so do opportunities for women. Of the 10 college majors with the highest earnings, the only one with more women than men is pharmacy.
In the majority
It’s around 10 a.m. on a Tuesday morning, and students file into their pharmacy law class at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha. A clear majority are female.
Nationally, around 61 percent of pharmacy students are female. The average in Nebraska is slightly higher – around 63 percent. At UNMC, it peaked at 74 percent as recently as 2006.
Why are so many women choosing to enter pharmacy?
“I like that there’s a consistent schedule and that it’s normally daytime hours,” said first-year pharmacy student Alex Dugan during a break. “I’ll be able to work just a set 40 hours a week and then be done.”
She said the ability to go part-time while still earning a high salary is also important, especially for women who might be interested in having children.
For many female students, work-life balance is still a big consideration, said Kelli Smith, associate director of career services at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, though she said more men are starting to care about that, too.
Pharmacy has also changed drastically over the years, said Michele Faulkner, associate professor of pharmacy practice and medicine at Creighton University in Omaha. She said the field incorporates much more patient interaction than in the past, which could be attracting more women to the field.
Smith said another issue for women, in particular, is industry visibility,
“It’s enormous,” she said. “I think that when students don’t have a picture, at even a very young age, about some of these career possibilities or choices or majors, then how are they going to be able to make that connection?”
In other words, one of the reasons there are so many female pharmacists is because there are so many female pharmacists, while one of the reasons for so few female computer scientists is, well, because there are so few female computer scientists.
Her own daughter, for example, said she couldn’t be president because “being president is for boys.”
Why does it matter?
Courtney Fletcher, dean of UNMC’s Pharmacy College, said he doesn’t think the higher numbers of women in pharmacy is an issue; he emphasized that the college doesn’t focus on gender in admissions, but simply takes the most qualified students who apply.
How to bring more women to male-dominated industries
Kelli Smith, associate director of career services at UNL, said there are several key ways to increase women's participation in traditionally male jobs:
- Make connections between skills and possible careers that use those skills early on.
- Employers need to create supportive working environments for women employees, including workplace evaluaitons that avoid gender bias.
- If women see other women in leadership roles within a given industry, it will make them more likely to pursue such a career.
- It's important to connect young students to mentors in their field, especially if they’re a minority in that field.
“You certainly want your classes to somewhat look like or mimic the population they’re going to be taking care of,” he said.
Smith agreed, saying a diversity of perspectives and experiences, including those tied to gender, ensure the most useful products are made, the most needs are met.
“We have to look at this as a larger societal issue,” she said. “If we had all males determining how buildings were designed or what kind of technology we were using, I don’t think any of us would benefit very much from that, male or female.”
Emma Lehman, the computer science student at the community college in Milford, chose to study programming because of the healthy job market and high salary. She said women are missing out on great opportunities by not giving computer science a try.
“It’s something that they can be good at,” she said matter-of-factly. “They shouldn’t write themselves off just because they’re intimidated.”
Speaking of intimidation, Lehman admitted she was nervous about being the only female in her class, but said she’s forged some great friendships over the year with her male classmates.
And at the beginning? She said they were probably as scared of her as she was of them.
Correction 10/11/2013: Julie Kohtz's last name contained an error in the original version of this article; she was incorrectly identified as the department chair instead of Beth Stutzman.