Being a science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) major in college can be hard; being a female STEM major can be even harder. Although the number of women in STEM fields is growing, they still only make up a handful of students and employees in comparison to men.
According to the Society of Women Engineers’ (SWE) research, only 9.7 percent of freshman women in 2017 intended to major in engineering, math, statistics or computer science, and over 32 percent of these women switch out of these programs at some point during their college careers.
But why is there such a low proportion of women in STEM programs? Between a lack of female role models who are scientists and engineers, and sexism, both blatant and passive, that can occur in male-dominated workplaces, it is no wonder that so many women and young girls do not believe they can get far in a STEM field.
However, many believe that there is a much earlier perception that steers young girls away from studying STEM subjects.
This perception starts as young as elementary-aged girls who grow up believing they can do anything but repeatedly face negative social reinforcement from the opposite sex, a lack of encouragement from adults and a lack of resources.
This has changed somewhat, as more schools have implemented after-school STEM programs, increased funding for STEM subjects and introduced more historical women of STEM into curriculum to demonstrate their prosperity.
But those women who have maintained their interest in STEM and decided to follow this dream into higher education still hit some awkward bumps on the way — women like Colorado Springs’ SWE President Candace Gulley, who majors in mechanical engineering and has been on a bumpy road to get where she is now.
Gulley began her higher education journey in 2011, initially majoring in biology at UCCS with the intention of becoming an anesthesiologist.
“I pretty much have always been interested in STEM and medical biology was basically my selling point … it was never really engineering, physics or chemistry,” Gulley said.
She had this impression up until 2014, when she realized how much she had been struggling with her biology major. When she took a physics class, she officially decided to take a break from school to figure out where she truly wanted to go with her career.
This break turned into a whole five years of working different kinds of industry-level jobs such as waitressing, bartending and even a brief stint managing at The Melting Pot. Working was not the only focus she had at this time though because, in 2015, she had her son.
By 2019, Gulley was the mother of a four-year-old, a wife and officially becoming a full-time student again at UCCS. Starting back as a physics major, she quickly realized she was going to have to take several humanities courses — which were not her strong suit. However, this only helped her discover her interest in mechanical engineering.
One day, Gulley was volunteering at the Space Symposium, an event put on by the Space Foundation every year that gathers a large number of aerospace companies.
On her way to the event, Gulley explained, “I had met a gentleman who actually owned his own company, and we were discussing what my major was … he said I should really look into mechanical engineering. He put it to me like this: if you want to pursue a degree in physics and you want to work in the aerospace industry, you have to sell yourself — and you have to sell yourself hard.”
Gulley learned that the aerospace industry was gearing itself more toward mechanical engineering majors, and marketing herself as a physics major was going to come at a lot more risk than anticipated — so she switched her major to mechanical engineering where she figured she could open more doors.
Gulley is almost halfway through getting her degree in mechanical engineering and hopes to score an internship in the process.
Besides being the president of the SWE’s Colorado Springs chapter, she is a member of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA), a regular volunteer at the Space Foundation’s Discovery Center and, of course, a full-time mother.
As many young women grow up, learning what interests them is a powerful thing. Whether it is in STEM, arts or sports, young girls and women should never believe they cannot pursue a career in whatever they want. Gulley is living proof that nothing can stop a woman from achieving what she wants in life, even if it means taking a while longer than expected.