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A group of women students speaking on a panel at Manhattan College.

Manhattan College hosted a women in STEM panel. Rebecca Coglianese is seated third from right.

Rebecca Coglianese

We recently celebrated Women’s History Month, and the month prior was International Women and Girls in Science Day, a time to reflect on what all women have accomplished in STEM fields. This day, and every day, I remember the important women who charted pathways and helped me become the scientist I am today.

I am proud to be part of a world where we strive for equal representation. I often think of Jocelyn Bell Burnell, who discovered the first neutron star—although her male adviser received the Nobel Prize for doing so.

I look forward to my future as a physicist focused on the niche world of braneworld research—the fascinating study of neutron stars and how gravity interacts with the universe. I am also studying an alternative gravity model and aim to broaden my course selection in graduate school to study new fields of planetary and galaxy life cycles, stellar dynamics, and solar plasma physics research. I want to show other young women that they, too, can play an important role in the research of the physical laws of our universe and all the other fields of science that keep our world spinning.

But as the only female physics student in my grade at Manhattan College, I cannot help but reflect on my gender and the disparities still deeply embedded within STEM careers. As I look toward graduation this spring, I am wary of entering a job market where I will not be valued as much as my male counterparts.

The National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics’ 2023 report found that while women make up half of the U.S. population, they still are only little more than a third of those employed in STEM occupations, even as women dominate undergraduate college enrollment and more women than men in STEM careers hold bachelor’s degrees. Although employees in the health-care and social science fields are overwhelmingly women, fields such as engineering and my major, physical sciences, still have gender imbalances.

Encouragement From Educators and Peers

So I’ve been thinking: How can we accelerate this diversification process and ensure that women feel welcome and ready to advocate for themselves in STEM careers?

Reflecting on my own experiences, there are a number of factors that contributed to my confidence as a woman in STEM. My teachers and professors provided strong female role models, and I had the support and encouragement of family members. Last year, I also got to attend a conference for undergraduate women in physics, which featured prominent female speakers who were able to touch on what it means to be a woman in STEM, and also what it means to fail and succeed.

But what helped most in sustaining my determination to achieve STEM career goals has been peer support, starting in high school.

Peer support is important for everyone, especially during adolescence. Numerous studies have shown that peers play a pivotal role in informing educational choices and interests. At a young age with a developing mind, it is easy to get caught up in a group-think mentality and align our interests with our peers—which can have a big impact on career choices.

Girls, especially, tend to modify their preferences based on what other girls in the classroom favor. Women often lack the confidence of their male counterparts, making them more likely to look toward the support of others. A group of women who lack confidence can deter one another from certain careers.

I remember all too well the ways my peers and I would feed off each other’s negativity, leading us to doubt whether we were capable of success. Having been taught from a young age solely about male scientists, it was easy for us to associate STEM with masculinity. I would find myself struggling in math and science courses and would focus more on the classes I knew I was good at rather than the ones that were actually of interest to me. And when I saw my female peers focusing more on their humanities-based studies, I wanted to join them.

Peer support can make a big difference. It wasn’t until my first college-level astronomy course that it really clicked that my own peers were looking to me for support and resources. I was the person quick to answer text messages about homework questions, create study guides for our exams and come up with projects.

It was then that I realized my true capability as a woman in STEM. When I saw that others believed in me, I began to believe in myself. Of course, my female teachers played a role in increasing my confidence, but when people my age, with my viewpoint on the world, saw my potential, it was the needed extra lift.

I decided to become a role model for other students at Manhattan College. Even now, many people are quick to complain about physics and its difficulty—especially my female friends. Thus, I have given talks about my experience as a woman in STEM to younger students who are unsure about their career paths, and I have always lent a helping hand to classmates in need of extra support. In graduate school, I hope to participate in outreach programs that focus on educational opportunities for those underrepresented in STEM careers. I know that if I help to increase the confidence of my peers, they very well could be steered toward a different career path.

I am grateful that more representation in the STEM field is at the forefront of our minds. But I believe that we can speed up this process if we address the root of the problem: female socialization.

A Call for Peer-Run Mentorship Programs

Women need to be surrounded by female role models in every aspect of their lives and careers—teachers, parents, renowned female figures and especially their peers. In addition to diversifying curricula and employing more female teachers in STEM, all schools and universities should add peer-run, all-female support and mentorship programs to increase confidence and show young girls that if other girls can succeed, they can, too.

Girls Who Code has mastered this model, helping college-age women nationwide achieve their dreams and reach their full potential in tech-related fields. I would like to see a similar program in all colleges and universities that teaches girls to succeed in all kinds of STEM fields.

This program could bring in female guest speakers who have made it far in their professional careers in STEM. It could focus on reteaching history, highlighting women who have often been overlooked in their groundbreaking STEM research (fun fact: I learned only this year that it was Albert Einstein’s wife, Mileva Einstein-Maric, who helped him come up with many of his famous equations!)

This club could be a source of support for women and girls who need spaces to vent about how they feel in their fields when they are otherwise surrounded by their male counterparts. It could include tutoring sessions, where students can come for additional help and see that other people who look and think like them can be successful.

It is my hope that a program like this can show women and girls that their voices matter and are valued in STEM fields. I believe that finding this kind of confidence starts at the peer level, and this needs to be more widely accepted.

Rebecca Coglianese is a senior physics major at Manhattan College.

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