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Gokhale addresses gender inequity

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“I am the only female faculty member in the Department of Technology,” Anu Gokhale said with a wry smile.  “When I was a physics graduate student at the College of William and Mary, there were often no other women in my classes.  I was one of three female students in the whole department.  Women typically make up a very small percentage of the workforce in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) disciplines.”

Addressing that traditional gender inequity is something Gokhale now sees as a career mission.  As a professor and the coordinator of the department’s computer systems program, she studies the reasons why women often shy away from science and technology, and what can be done to bring more women into those fields.  Working with Illinois State faculty colleagues, she leads projects and teaching initiatives that aim to get more women and minorities to pursue education and careers in science and technology, with her main emphasis being on computing-related professions.

“The U.S. has an ongoing need for more scientists, engineers and technologists,” said Gokhale.  “Many of those majors are still predominantly populated by white males.  When one looks at trying to attract more students into these areas, the real untapped source is women and minorities.  That said, we certainly do not want to discourage white males.  The real goal is to increase diversity and gender equity while raising the overall number of students entering STEM disciplines.”

Gokhale points out that the reasons for the smaller percentage of women in science and technology have their roots in the middle school and high school years.  Studies have shown that boys and girls have the same math and science abilities, but junior high and high school is often the time when math and science begins to take on the traditional male-dominated look. Social forces come into play and can have a severe impact on girls.  Outmoded stereotypes about math, science and technology careers can steer girls away.

“This is also a time when being considered smart can seem like a real stigma for some girls,” she said. “If a student eventually wants to enter a STEM-related major in college, she needs a solid background in math and science.  Without those prerequisites, it is very hard to catch up, and then fields such as engineering may be very difficult to pursue.”

Through her teaching, publications, speaking and involvement in professional organizations, Gokhale is an advocate for changing the image of computing and other STEM-related disciplines.  She notes that the ubiquity of computers and smart devices and the increasing demand for information technology professionals has certainly raised awareness of the major role computers and technology play in our society.  That awareness means there is also a great potential for attracting more students to the computing disciplines.

“It is important to put a human face on the careers we talk about in class,” she said.  “We bring computing professionals into introductory level classes so they can talk about their careers.  The guest speakers talk about not only what they do on the job, but their educational and career path, and how they balance their careers with their family lives and other obligations.  I think that is important for students, especially women, to hear.”

Emphasizing the non-technical “soft skills” that are needed in many computing-related careers is also something that Gokhale feels is vital.  “A lot of work in computing-related fields is done in teams and involves a combination of technical skills, such as programming and client relationship management activities,” she noted.  “That combination of technical and people skills is often appealing to women.”

Gokhale and her colleague Kenton Machina, a philosophy professor emeritus, are in the third year of a National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded project to increase the number of women, African American and Hispanic students in computing majors.  The project targets Illinois State students in an introductory level finite mathematics class.  Because the class is a requirement for many computing-related majors on campus, it is a perfect venue for demonstrating to students the connection between mathematics and computing applications.

“We use blogs and class visits by technical professionals to get students actively involved in learning about the many aspects of computing,” said Gokhale.  “Our preliminary research findings in the project are promising. We have seen a slight increase in the number of students in the experimental group going on to register for computing classes or declaring a computing-related major.  The numbers are small, but they are above average when compared to other NSF-funded projects in the same program, so that is exciting.”

In a similar project five years ago, NSF funding allowed Gokhale and Machina to work with a general education course to generate more female student interest in science and technology.  Their research findings indicated that without intervention, college females were less interested in gaining knowledge about science and technology, saw less benefit from science and technology, were less accepting of female participation in those disciplines and declined in their perception that females in science and technology have the same level of opportunity as males. Their findings call for interventions in science and technology education similar to those being implemented in their current NSF-funded project in order to keep females, who are nearly 55 percent of the undergraduate population in the U.S., engaged in those fields of study.

One of the most effective interventions in science and technology education, or in any field, is the presence of positive role models and mentors.  As a woman in a traditionally male-dominated field, Gokhale takes that role very seriously.  “I feel that I have been able to act as a mentor for a number of students in computing-related majors,” she said. “I especially enjoy working with students who are doing honors projects or independent studies because they are really engaged in their work, and it gives me a chance to relate to them one on one.  When I am teaching classes, I always emphasize the importance of STEM disciplines and the many professional opportunities available to students.  We have great potential right now to get more students, especially women and minorities, involved in science and technology.”

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