The United States Census Bureau reported that only 26 percent of employees in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields were women (2013 data). At Wofford College, the distribution is different: women make up about 53 percent of students in STEM fields.

In May, 94 women graduated from Wofford with majors in mathematics, computer science, biology, psychology, environmental studies, physics or chemistry. Many are heading to medical schools or Ph.D. programs to continue preparation for careers as professors, researchers, doctors, teachers and therapists. Many, like Samantha Hemleben ’15, recognize that they are entering a world in which women are the minority and that there are specific challenges to being a woman in a STEM field.

“I always liked math, but some teachers in high school told me, ‘You’re not really good at it. You might not want to major in math in college,’” says Hemleben, an undiscouraged mathematics major with an emphasis in computer science from Columbus, Ohio. “I just kept taking math classes at Wofford, and I did well.” 

So well that Hemleben was accepted into the Ph.D. program in robotics at Oregon State University. She begins in the fall.

“It’s hard for people to grasp the fact that I’m not your stereotypical computer science or math person,” says Hemleben, who did summer and Interim research at Oregon State within the past year.

Dr. Anne Catlla, associate professor in the Department of Mathematics, says this class of women faces different challenges than she did in graduate school, but they also have more opportunities available to them. 

“People are more willing to talk about gender issues…. The glass ceiling becomes more of an issue, as well as work-family balance,” says Catlla, who frequently brings her young son to work with her. She says that the assumption that women cannot accomplish as much once they have children is untrue. 

“It makes me sad when women feel intimidated, that it’s ‘not for them,’ or feel unwelcome. The more women we have going into a field, the better we are,” she says.

Rakiya Faulkner ’15, a chemistry major from Lancaster, S.C., says at Wofford being a woman in a STEM field is not unusual.

“There are so many STEM women here that I haven’t really felt the pressure that others talk about,” she says. “I started out in biology but loved chemistry more and was led to change majors in a business class.”

While taking “Business Leadership and Beyond” with professor emeritus Dr. Jim Proctor, Faulkner says she told Proctor about her love of chemistry. He encouraged her to follow her passion. Now Faulkner is eager to begin medical school in the fall at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston. 

Another chemistry major, Emily Bacher ’15, is beginning a five-year, research-based Ph.D. program in organic chemistry at Notre Dame. She was influenced by her “awesome high school teachers” to study chemistry and believes that women should not sell themselves short. She says she has felt supported at Wofford, and Annika Jansson ’15, a psychology major from Folsom, Calif., and Alissa Williams ’15, a biology and computer science major from Kentwood, Mich., both agree.

Jansson, a scholar-athlete on the college’s women’s soccer team who says the faculty of the Psychology Department have been exceptional in their encouragement, is bound for the Medical University of South Carolina with plans for a career in occupational therapy. Williams, a Goldwater Scholar who recently was named to the CoSIDA Academic All-District Track & Field/Cross Country team, has a full scholarship with stipend to attend the University of California, Berkeley. She will pursue a Ph.D. in computational biology.

“I came here knowing of Wofford’s strong biology program, and a professor recommended that I take the computer science emphasis…. Now that I’ve done some internships [at Harvard Medical School, Cold Springs Harbor and the European Bioinformatics Institute in Cambridge, England], I’ve realized how important computer science is to biology. It’s cool to be able to apply your programming skills to solving biological problems,” says Williams. 

According to Williams, Wofford does a good job of exposing women to different opportunities in the STEM fields, but she still would like to see even more women take advantage of the opportunities. 

“It hasn’t been hard at Wofford to be a woman in a STEM field just because there is so much support,” says Carol Sadek ’15, a mathematics and computer science double major from Mount Pleasant, S.C., “but in the real world, when you go to conferences—or grad school visits, like I’ve just done—the population is heavily male…. You have to deal with the fact that you are one of a few women in a male-dominated field. I think that the professors here, especially with the significant presence of female professors, make it easier for women to be in STEM fields.”

Sadek, who did summer research experiences with Oak Ridge National Laboratories and with the NSA, will begin a Ph.D. program in applied mathematics at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. She received honorable mention for the COMAP mathematical modeling competition and was a finalist for the CCSE-SE regional computer science competition.

During the past semester 15 women taught in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics areas at the college. All hold doctoral degrees and three serve as department chairs. 

“In 2011, the last time they produced the ranking, listed Wofford 14th among the nation's best colleges and universities for women in STEM fields. ‘These are schools that are getting it right,’ wrote Forbes. Wofford is still getting it right,” says Provost Dennis Wiseman. “Our women are at the forefront of science, and we are eager to see all that they will accomplish.”

by Sarah Madden ’17