What’s it like to be a woman in STEM in Fort Wayne? Indiana Tech students weigh in

As of 2020, fewer than a quarter of engineers nationwide are female. Indiana Tech in Fort Wayne is doing what it can to change that.  
 
Last year, Indiana Tech hired Dr. Ying Shang, Ph.D., as Dean of its Talwar College of Engineering and Computer Sciences, making her one of only 80 female engineering deans across the country—and one of even fewer women of Asian descent.
 
With the addition of Shang, all of Indiana Tech’s deans are women, across the school. 
Portrait of Dr. Ying Shang, Dean of Indiana Tech’s Talwar College of Engineering and Computer Sciences.
To women who attend Indiana Tech, like sophomore biomedical engineering major Julia Bockstahler, the presence of female leadership in academia, particularly in male-dominated fields, makes “a big difference” in student experience and comfort levels.
 
“Women teach differently,” says Bockstahler. “I think having someone to look up to really helps. That female connection tells you she did it, so I can do it.” 
 
Bockstahler says she believes one of the main reasons women are less likely to pursue STEM careers is due to a lack of representation in the industry.
 
“The hardest thing when I started was being the only woman in the class,” Bockstahler says. “When you first get there, all the guys are staring, and you feel really out of place. It’s hard to focus when you’re not comfortable.” 
 
Shang says she is more than happy to be a part of female representation in STEM programs on campus and to set an example for the young women following her.  
 
“I can understand what it’s like,” she says. “When I first applied to be a Dean of Engineering, I was scared because there were only two Asian female deans. But I knew as I was working my way up through the ranks that I was only making it easier for the next woman. That made the fear worth it.” 
 Indiana Tech student Alexandra Forsythe works on operational amplifier functions, specifically a triangle wave generator, in the Talwar College of Engineering and Computer Sciences.
One of Shang’s main goals since beginning at Indiana Tech is to work with more area youth organizations and introduce students to the world of STEM at an early age.  
 
“I think one of the most important places to start is with the children,” Shang says. “Right now, we are working to get involved with the Girl Scouts of America and other youth groups to start clubs and summer camps to help introduce STEM and make it less intimidating.” 
 
Gicell Aleman, a computer engineering graduate, agrees it’s best to start introducing girls to STEM at a young age, citing her own experiences entering college without the same base-level knowledge as some of her classmates.  
 
“It’s a struggle when everyone around you has spent their lives in coding camps and robotics clubs,” she says. “Women aren’t afforded the same opportunities as men, and you end up entering college on an uneven playing field.” 
Indiana Tech student Alexandra Forsythe works on operational amplifier functions, specifically a triangle wave generator.
This dynamic is partially created by the difference between how teachers, as early as elementary school, treat male versus female students. According to one study, when girls ask for help during science labs, the teacher is likely to fix the problem for them as the student watches, but if a boy asks for help, the teacher is more likely to instruct him through the problem, letting him solve it hands-on. This sets the precedent from early on that women are helpless and men are capable. 
 
Within the classroom, Bockstahler says women in STEM courses tend to group together and bond over their experiences. While the staff of the school does a great job of interceding at any time when a male classmate attempts to belittle or discredit one of the women’s work, there is a disconnect at times between the two genders.  
 
“I would say it’s about 50/50 between men who treat us like anyone else and the guys who need you to constantly prove yourself over and over to believe you’re a quarter as smart as they think they are,” says Aleman.  
 Biomedical engineering major Julia Bockstahler speaks at the President’s Dinner during Indiana Tech’s 2021 homecoming. The Oak Forest, Illinois, native is also a member of Indiana Tech’s women’s golf team.
Alexandria Forsythe, a senior electrical engineering student, hypothesizes another reason for the separation in the classroom and for a lack of women in STEM courses is the confidence gap between men and women. 
 
“I know from talking to my peers that most of us have experienced it,” says Forsythe. “It’s like the men are used to being told they’re right their entire lives, so they easily assume it. We have to fight to prove we can be right.” 
 
Across the U.S., this confidence gap is not just something perceived; it has been proven. In a 2003 study by Cornell psychologist David Dunning and Washington State University psychologist Joyce Ehrlinger, it was shown that women rate their confidence on a science test 13 percent lower than men, even when the actual test scores between the genders are closer.  
 Indiana Tech student Alexandra Forsythe, left, and Dr. Ying Shang, Dean of the Talwar College of Engineering and Computer Sciences work together on operational amplifier functions.
To help close this confidence gap, Indiana Tech staff works hard to support their students. Emotional support, combined with female representation and intentional progress, improves student confidence, within individuals and the school, as a whole. 
 
“The best thing about Indiana Tech is how much they care about their students,” Forsythe says. “All the staff; it doesn’t matter if you’re in their department or just their class. Every staff member wants to see you succeed, and they’ll all do what they can to support you.” 
 
Beyond emotional support, the school also places a strong focus on academic support and hands-on resume building to continue to bolster a student’s growth post-graduation. 
 
“The biggest thing (Indiana Tech) pushes is getting experience before you leave,” says Bockstahler. “From volunteering to paid internships, professors are always sending us opportunities to prepare us for the real world.” 
 Indiana Tech student Alexandra Forsythe, left, and Dr. Ying Shang, Dean of the Talwar College of Engineering and Computer Sciences work together on operational amplifier functions in the Zollner Engineering Center.
All three students believe Indiana Tech is preparing them well for the job market beyond college and making sure they step into the world on equal terms with their male peers. This belief is backed by 99 percent of the school's 2020 graduates being either employed, pursuing additional education, in the military or volunteering. 

When asked what advice they’d give to women considering careers in STEM, each student responded with variations of the same message.
 
“Be yourself, and just do it.”

This story was made possible by underwriting support from Indiana Tech.