Unhidden Figures

NM has the nation’s widest gender gap in STEM bachelor’s degrees, but girls and women here are narrowing it


The nighttime sky as seen over Santa Fe, thick with clusters of stars and distant planets, spins slowly above Amanda Truitt. She controls the movement of the galaxy with a black remote in one hand and explains with the other which edges of the Milky Way New Mexicans can see on a moonless midnight.

It is 3 o'clock in the afternoon.

Truitt navigates the solar system with the click of a button at Santa Fe Community College's planetarium.

She has been an adjunct faculty professor at the college since August, after leaving Los Alamos National Laboratory. With a doctorate in astrophysics, Truitt teaches astronomy and is the planetarium coordinator for the school. She plans to open the planetarium more regularly and hold public events there, hoping to boost local interest in space—especially among girls and young women.

In class, she says she struggles a bit with how to broach the difficulties in an education and career in STEM—science, technology, engineering and math—for women. She believes her presence, a representation of what's possible, might itself be the best advertisement.

Truitt tells girls at events: "You can do whatever you are interested in. Try not to let people discourage you from your curiosity because that's all that science is: just finding something you're passionate and curious about and following it. And you're allowed to do that," she says in the planetarium. "But outside of those particular platforms sometimes it feels unwanted. That's part of the problem of the male-dominated field. You don't necessarily want to talk about it too much and have negative attention drawn toward you."

Despite recent strides in gender pay equity and an overall increase in women in STEM education and careers, a troubling fact remains for the industry and the nation: Not a single state has more women than men with STEM degrees. The gap is widest in New Mexico, where women have 22.5% fewer STEM bachelor's degrees than men.

Further, the gulf has widened by 2.3% between 2015 and 2017, according to an analysis by Typing.com, which offers educational and computer science classes online. Its team analyzed data from the US Census Bureau's American Community Survey from 2015 to 2017 and looked at STEM gaps by degree, occupation and

New Mexico's disparity has grown more than nearly any other state during that time period, trailing only Alaska, South Dakota and Montana.

Debjani Biswas, an engineer and CEO and founder of Coachieve, LLC, has given multiple lectures and penned op-eds on the gender and pay gap in STEM careers. She attributes a lot of that nationwide gap to unconscious bias against girls and women and an assumption that females are simply not good at science and math.

"That's why one of my TEDx Talks is called 'But You Don't Look Like An Engineer' because, when I was 16 years old and I was in a classroom with 39 boys and continuously from when I graduated in my early 20s, that's what I heard … 'you don't look like an engineer,'" Biswas says.

Despite the educational gap, the statewide picture brightens at the professional level: New Mexico rank in the middle when it comes to women working in STEM jobs compared to men.

With organizations such as Girls, Inc. headquartered in downtown Santa Fe, to STEM Santa Fe, which holds workshops and events for girls, to Los Alamos National Lab, and increasing enrollment in the STEM programs at come colleges, there is a broad effort to hearten girls and young women around the state with dreams of careers in science.

Truitt always loved science, and her family encouraged that. At 14, she developed her fascination with space—because of her dad, a telescope and the stars above rural north Dallas, Texas.

"He bought us a telescope and we went out to a really dark spot, somewhere in Texas, and looked through the telescope at Mars when it was at one of its closest approaches in a really long time," Truitt says. "It looked really big and awesome through the telescope and I was fascinated by that. … Then when I read Death by Black Hole in high school by Neil deGrasse Tyson, I was like, 'This is awesome. I want to go to college for astrophysics.'"

So, she did.

But not every girl has that kind of experience and encouragement from friends, family, teachers or peers, especially not those who grow up in New Mexico. The state has notoriously struggled at the bottom of government and nonprofit lists ranking quality of education and child wellbeing.

"Throughout the state there is great disparity in the ability to provide STEM education in general," says Santa Fe Public Schools Superintendent Veronica Garcia. "There is no real funding stream statewide for technical infrastructure that is available for all districts."

The New Mexico Public Education Department acknowledges there are serious shortages of teachers overall, including teachers with advanced knowledge in STEM fields, available for the state's public schools. A lack of focus on improving basic math literacy as well as fewer resources being put toward rural and poorer school districts in the past has created the problem that New Mexico now faces—fewer women than men in STEM education and careers.

Step up for college STEM 

Despite New Mexico's struggles with education, it is a major employer for scientists and researchers because of national laboratories in the state. It also attracts and helps create some of the nation's most sought-after computer scientists and engineers from Northern New Mexico College and New Mexico Tech.

Other colleges are attempting to strengthen their STEM programs as well. This fall, SFCC put together its first cohort for a STEM Core program. More than 30 colleges across the country have adopted STEM Core, but Santa Fe's is the first of its kind in New Mexico. Supported by Los Alamos National Lab and the National Science Foundation, the program is meant to make STEM career pathways more inclusive for both men and women and provide more rigorous work, a fast track for an associate's degree and a higher potential for internships and employment at LANL.

STEM Core recruits students who are ready to take either intermediate or college algebra and prepares them for calculus in two semesters. It also allows them to work in the same small groups all semester, and it provides special access to summer internship opportunities at LANL, monthly sessions on presentation and interviewing skills, tours of lab facilities and networking with managers and technical experts from the labs.

Ulianie Chinana, 21, eagerly took on STEM Core's challenges. She sits next to her 18-year-old Core classmate, Erica Diaz, after an almost two-hour resume and cover letter workshop designed to help the students apply to internships and jobs at LANL.

Originally from Gallup, Chinana graduated from Capital High School. She knew she wanted to be an engineer in her sophomore year of high school, when she was still in Gallup. But life circumstances held her back. Despite teachers trying to push her, she didn't believe until recently that her dreams were possible.

"[My high school teachers] were like, 'Here's this program that you might be interested in' and I would jump at that opportunity," Chinana says. "But given that my mom and [family] were always at work, I never was able to take advantage of it because I never had the ride, I never had anything."

Two years ago, Chinana forged ahead anyway.

Signing up for classes at SFCC with her goal of becoming a mechanical or aeronautical engineer, she quickly stood out. At the end of last semester, she was invited to join the Core program. Now, she's happy for more reasons than an earlier graduation date—she finally has the support she always needed.

"Ever since I started here, I've had resources thrown at me left and right that have been so helpful to keep me in school," Chinana says. "I guess you would say that this is my second family."

Yet Chinana and Diaz both want to leave New Mexico after completing their bachelor's degrees.

After moving through the public school system in their home state, neither is surprised at the statistics showing New Mexico's dearth of women earning STEM bachelor's degrees.

"There has always been a gap," Diaz says matter of factly. "When I said I wanted to be an engineer, many people [said] 'You're female. Why are you going toward that degree?' Women can do the same thing as men. You set your [own] limits."

More and more New Mexican women seem to agree. At SFCC in the fall semester of 2015, 32% of STEM majors were women. That figure jumped to 37% in the 2019 fall semester, according to data provided by the college.

Northern New Mexico College has seen a more dramatic increase in women enrolled in STEM programs, not including nursing. In the fall semester of 2016, 38% of STEM majors were women. In fall 2019, 46% were women.

The University of New Mexico, conversely, saw an overall drop in women in its engineering college from 2015 through 2019, from 614 to 596. Hispanic female enrollment increased slightly during that time period, but white and American
Indian female attendance shrunk.

At UNM, many STEM majors saw slight decreases in female enrollment as well. Astrophysics, biology, chemistry and mathematics all saw dips, while biochemistry saw a slight increase, according to data provided by the university.

Left behind as children

Helen Wearing, associate professor at UNM in mathematics, statistics and biology, moved to New Mexico 12 years ago to take a faculty position. Wearing says she can have a larger impact at UNM than at other places because there are so many first-generation college students.

"In general in society we don't encourage girls to show interest in math. … So that definitely shows up," Wearing says about the students in her classes. "But I also see that in boys, too, and I think oftentimes it's just lack of preparation in primary and secondary level of education here."

Wearing's analysis is widely shared.

Gwen Perea Warniment, deputy cabinet secretary for the state Public Education Department, was part of the bipartisan STEM Coalition Steering Committee in 2018 that commissioned a report that found of 29,000 students enrolled in public education in Pre-K in the state, just over 5,000 students went on to graudate from a four-year institution with a degree in six years or less. That's just 17%.

The graduation rate for STEM degrees was even lower. Of those 5,000 students who graduated in 2016, the year the report examined, 1,700 students graduated with a STEM or STEM-H degree. (STEM-H degree includes nursing.) That's only a third.

Warniment calls it "a huge gap" and attributes it to New Mexico's severe teacher shortage, a switch in 2011 to teaching Common Core math, which Warniment describes as a "struggle" for most teachers, and widespread poverty and lack of education in many households across the state.

New Mexico's children also have a very low proficiency for math—around 20% for both males and females, according to Warniment.

Warniment tells SFR that Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham's administration will focus on improving basic understanding of math by building an updated plan for the state—which officials hope to roll out next summer—as well as improving professional development for STEM teachers.

"We have a pretty strong early literacy initiative and we have a literacy framework," Warniment says. "There is nothing that's equivalent in mathematics."

PED also plans to improve computer science learning in public schools through the work of a newly created task force. Members are meeting Oct. 11 to set a plan and vision for the state.

The third aspect of PED's plan is to help districts understand New Mexico's Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), which are "very complex," Warniment says.

Some school districts across the state have been using the standards for "quite some time," she says, "and some are not at all familiar with them."

NGSS is based on the latest scientific advances, including human-caused climate change, and the most updated principles of how students learn best.

According to Warniment, previous administrations have contributed to the growing STEM education gender gap by not prioritizing increasing STEM proficiency in lower grade levels so that New Mexicans can succeed in college. The department's lack of individualized attention and additional money for rural and poorer school districts to improve their teachers, curriculum and resources has also contributed to the current problem, Warniment says.

The women at the lab

Perched on the hill an hour above Santa Fe, the lab has slowly enticed more women to its halls.

During the Manhattan Project, 640 women worked at Los Alamos—about 11% of the total workforce. The first women began working in the lab in the early 1940s as overqualified "computers," doing basic mathematical equations far below their skill and education level to support the more advanced work reserved for male scientists.

Today, LANL is one of the biggest employers in New Mexico of scientists and researchers from both inside and outside the state. Of all of the employees at LANL, about 32% are women, according to statistics provided by the lab. Senior leadership is 31% women. The majority of female representation is among undergraduate students, at 45%, and operations support staff at 36%. The departments with the smallest ratio of women are technical research staff at 22% and postdoctoral researchers at 24%.

But that minimal statistical progress from 11% women to 32% in roughly 70 years is not enough for Anna Llobet Megias, a 19-year physicist at Los Alamos. Llobet Megias' parents did not attend college. She is the first in her family to earn a PhD and one of her consistent goals has been to pave the way for New Mexican girls to get interested in STEM.

Three years ago she started the Summer Physics Camp for Young Women in Northern New Mexico, which lasts two weeks at Pojoaque Valley High School and aims to inspire and challenge girls with STEM activities and role models. The girls are also paid and fed but go home in the evenings.

The camp's insistence on inviting only female participants and role models is important to Llobet Megias. Last year, she brought in 60 female scientists and researchers to tell their personal stories to the girls so they could see that a career in STEM has no limitations.

"We got surveys at the beginning and at the end of the camp to see if their perceptions changed through the camp and all the statistics showed that their perceptions changed," Llobet Megias tells SFR. "They are less fearful. They felt more empowered. They realized that there is a world out there of silent figures that might not be in the front covers of the newspapers that are women, that are working hard in STEM."

LANL is not the only one providing financial and experiencial support for New Mexican's female scientists. STEM Santa Fe's work in the public school system and its Oct. 5 STEM Pathways for Girls conference, which brought girls and young women from all over the state and pueblos to meet female scientists, is just one program operating in New Mexico.

Girls Inc. also offers programs immersing girls in nature and hands-on projects designed to encourage them in STEM subjects.

The Santa Fe Public School District has initiatives that serve small numbers of students each semester. At Capital High School, there are Career Technical Education Programs of Study, including the medical sciences and computers and information technology. Santa Fe High School offers engineering and computer science.

The district's 21st century after-school programs also include some STEM
activities that serve nearly 1,000 students in 14 low-income elementary and middle schools, including Girls Who Code.

However, there are no specific STEM classes for girls within the public school system, says Garcia. Despite that, the superintendent says that anecdotally, the district has seen an increase in girls in STEM programs and classes.

‘Rock the boat’

There is a lot more that public school districts across the country, and especially in New Mexico, could be doing to increase both the racial and gender diversity in STEM education and careers, according to Biswas, first and foremost being unconscious bias training (SFPS, for example, doesn't do this training.).

There are also reasons that educators, politicians and industries should be pushing the same agenda—the health of the world, the economy and the climate, as well as innovation depend on diversity.

"We're looking at climate change and global warming and cures to cancer," Biswas says. "If we're effectively saying that the decision-making is going to come from 50% of the population, common sense says that couldn't one of these females who are not in STEM at the moment come up with the solution to plastic pollution or the solution to cancer? We are excluding a lot of females from STEM careers and by so doing we are reducing our chances of getting to the solutions that help everyone."

Truitt, the SFCC planetarium coordinator, wants to make sure that no one is kept from being able to see the stars the way she and her students do.

Standing behind a control board, scrolling around Santa Fe's night sky, she remembers some difficulties she has faced, first as a female STEM student and then in her professional career.

"There certainly have been times where I've felt discriminated [against], especially in my college classes," Truitt says. "It felt isolating and a lot of the professors sometimes would assume I was auditing the class."

She received her doctorate in astrophysics anyway. She doesn't want other people, especially young women, to feel isolated or unwelcome in STEM classes. For now, she will continue teaching—and is opening the planetarium to the public.

On Halloween night, she's hosting several sessions of an event that looks into asteroids, black holes and more.

"I do try to support young kids and encouraging young girls especially to get into STEM," Truitt says. "In New Mexico, in Texas, it's not something that's outrightly encouraged, and I feel that fear of 'you don't wanna rock the boat or piss people off.' That's probably why it hasn't been encouraged. I want to try to help move in a more positive direction with that if I can."


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