Women provide support in STEM majors


A new club, Women in STEM — Science, Technology, Engineering and Math — plans to fill a gap that has existed for too long in the STEM community at Occidental, according to Colleen Walton (senior) and Sarah Klenha (senior).

The club, abbreviated to WiSTEM, was founded by Walton, Klenha and Sarah Schmitz (senior). The rest of the executive board so far includes Ellen Shin (sophomore) and Kayla Currier (junior).

Walton, Schmitz and Klenha want WiSTEM to act as a support group and help women in STEM majors make friends and connections with other women on campus. They hope creating this kind of community at Occidental will empower WiSTEM’s members during college and also give them the tools to foster friendships with other women in male-dominated STEM fields after graduation. Klenha said the club is open to all gender identities and all majors, and anyone is welcome to come to events and meetings.

Klenha, Walton and Schmitz came up with the idea for WiSTEM last spring. They said the classes in STEM subjects they attend at Occidental are disproportionately male, and that men tend to dominate the conversation.

“Men in these classes often times speak up and just say the wrong thing,” Klenha said. “I feel like for women, they’re afraid to speak up and say the wrong thing, because it diminishes their authority and validity in a class.”

Walton and Klenha also plan to introduce a mentoring program in which first years and sophomores will pair with juniors and seniors from the STEM major they are interested in. The junior or senior mentor can give advice about navigating the major and what classes to sign up for.

“My first couple years at Oxy, I had no idea what to do,” Klenha said. “I didn’t know what classes to take, and I was very intimidated to ask older people for help or advice.”

Walton added that a future goal, once WiSTEM is more established, is to work off campus with elementary and/or high school students to build the students’ interest in pursuing STEM majors in college.

Walton said there are not enough resources on campus for STEM majors that focus on community building and none that are specific to women.

“There’s academic support, and of course there’s groups for women on campus, but there isn’t really an intersection of those two,” Walton said.

Walton and Klenha have mentioned the club to other women in their STEM classes and said there seems to be a lot of support and interest already. Georgina Garcia-Obledo (junior), a math major and economics minor, said she is planning to join.

“In the beginning of my college career, it really did affect me that I felt this gender disparity in my classes, and it kind of scared me off from some subjects even though intellectually I knew I was just as capable,” Garcia-Obledo said. “It’s been very helpful for me to find friends or mentors who are also interested in STEM. And I would want to join the club to foster that community and have a group of people to fall back on and also to support.”

Walton pointed to the disproportionate amount of female to male professors in STEM majors at Occidental as another reason a club like WiSTEM is necessary on campus.

“I think this is a community at Oxy that’s been missing for a long time,” Walton said. “We’re both seniors, and in our year there are no women physics majors, which is interesting.”

According to the Institutional Research office at Occidental, the largest disparity in STEM majors at Occidental is found in the chemistry and physics departments, with women accounting for eight of the 26 chemistry majors and 12 of the 54 physics majors.

“If no one is interested in them, that’s valid, that’s fine, but you just have to ask why. Because Oxy is a majority women,” Klenha added.

Meetings times have yet to be decided, and one more position on the executive board needs to be filled. Walton, Schmitz and Klenha hope to finish setting up the executive board this semester and have a general, open meeting before winter break for anyone who is interested. They will start recruiting members and having regular meetings in the spring.