Students Form Group for Women in Quantitative Fields
Issue   |   Tue, 12/09/2014 - 23:16

A group of four students recently started Amherst Women in Finance, Economics and STEM, a club for female students interested in or already pursuing a degree in quantitative fields. STEM is an acronym for science, technology, engineering and math.

Economics and math major Ali Rohde ’16 said she had been thinking about possible ways to encourage more women to enter typically male-dominated fields. She wanted to foster a comfortable environment in which female students could readily see female upperclassmen and professors in quantitative fields as role models.

“As Amherst students, we are basically trying to figure out who we are and what we want to do, and part of the way we do that is by watching people who are similar to us and trying to imagine ourselves in their shoes,” Rohde said.

Before establishing the club, Rohde spoke with Associate Professor of Economics Jessica Reyes, who attended Amherst as an undergraduate. Reyes had participated in Amherst Women in the Sciences club, which has since disappeared, and wanted to inspire more women to pursue economics, math and the sciences, just as the club had encouraged her to do.

Rohde also said that events and clubs on campus gave her more inspiration, especially the Women’s and Gender Center’s “Women in Finance” panel last year and the Women in Computer Science club. She was able to further develop her idea while working for a professor of economics at Harvard who specialized in economics of gender and had published papers about female economics majors at the university.

With the idea for the new club in mind, Rohde then approached three other female students majoring in quantitative subjects: Thais Correia ’16, Julie Xia ’17 and Nicole Chi ’15. They expressed interest in the role of gender in quantitative fields and were enthusiastic about fostering a welcoming community for women in such fields.

“Gender is not the only characteristic that matters, but it’s definitely a significant one,” Rohde said. “Gender is also important because of the negative stereotypes that exist about women pursuing quantitative fields.”

Correia said that she has experienced many uncomfortable situations as a woman studying computer science.

“I’ve been in an audience of women programmers where we were told by a man we’d love the next presentation because it was an app about shoe shopping,” Correia said. “I’ve been also made to question my own programming abilities by off-handed comments about how I only got certain internship offers because the company was trying to fill their gender quota. It’s very hard to stay in any field where you constantly face sexism and ignorance.”

Xia, a computer science and environmental studies double major, has felt pressure due to her gender because the number of women classmates dwindles as she takes more upper-level courses.

“The lower it gets, the more responsible I feel for proving that yes, women are just as good as men in this field,” Xia said. “That sometimes manifests itself in me being nervous to ask ‘dumb’ questions in class or suggest a wrong implementation should it reflect poorly on women in computer science. It’s obviously a silly and pretty irrational fear, but it’s definitely present and something that affects how I behave in class settings.”

Through Amherst Women in Finance, Economics and STEM, Correia hopes to solidify a strong network of women in the quantitative fields.

“It took me until my fourth semester here to find a solid group of female friends that I could geek out over CS stuff with — not necessarily because there are so few, but more because we didn’t have many opportunities to get to know each other outside of class,” Correia said. She believes that a network of support will encourage women to stay in quantitative fields despite gender imbalances.

Not only would the club provide a community and support network for current quantitative majors; it would also reach out to prospective majors who may be hesitant about pursuing traditionally male-dominated subjects.

According to Xia, the gender disparity begins early. She said that in the introductory computer science classes in which she works as a teaching assistant, there tend to be more young female students saying things such as “Comp sci is just not my thing” or “I knew I shouldn’t have taken this class” than male students.

“Even when male students are struggling way more than their female counterparts, they’re generally more confident in their abilities. It’s scary, and I hope this group works towards empowering women and teaching them that struggle is part of the journey,” Xia said.

Chi also emphasized the group’s inclusivity.

“We truly wish to be as inclusive as possible and simply want to bring together people who have similar gender-related experiences in the classroom,” Chi said. “We welcome all non-binary gender and trans persons.”

The organizers are currently brainstorming an agenda for the club. They have discussed establishing a one-to-one mentoring system, but want to create something that is more compatible with diverse and busy personal schedules. Another idea is to consolidate with the Association of Women in Science, a new organization on campus with similar goals. Furthermore, the club may host a speaker series or a monthly lunch before beginning more long-term projects.

To launch the new group, the group will hold an event for female economics, math and science majors or prospective majors to meet one another. Additionally, participants of the event will be able to meet female thesis writers and professors in these quantitative fields.

“This event will hopefully be one step towards creating and enhancing the community of females in economics and STEM at Amherst,” Rohde said.

The introductory event will take place on Friday, Dec. 12 from noon to 2 p.m. at the Powerhouse.

Ian Hatch '14 (not verified) says:
Wed, 12/10/2014 - 13:57

I'm terribly glad this is happening. Well done folks!