Each March, as Women’s History Month approaches, Missouri State celebrates women who have played an important role within the university. Biology instructor Tina Hopper has been teaching at MSU for 19 years. Her contributions to the university are expressed in many ways, one of which is the historically underrepresented role of being a woman in STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — fields.
“I feel like (STEM) has a wide definition but it's mostly looking at fields of science, and you think about this expansion of what science is,” Hopper said. “It’s kind of getting to know and answering questions about the world around us.”
Though the world around us evolves, there is still an unbalanced ratio of women to men in STEM. According to the UC San Diego Extension Center for Research and Evaluation’s Women in STEM Workforce Index 2020, in 2018 women represented approximately 25% of U.S. STEM careers for the previous 30 years.
“It's relatively low, but the interesting thing too is that most of the students that graduate are actually females,” Hopper said referring to the statistics. “So, there's this disconnect between students getting a degree and going into the workforce.”
Through experience, Hopper said she has been able to identify what might be causing the lack of female presence in STEM fields.
“Unfortunately, I feel like the field is still from a male-dominated perspective,” Hopper said.
According to Hopper, this traditionally male dominated force stems from years of underlying ideas. Despite the inflexibility for women in the practice, she finds the pattern lies also in the minds of those not directly affiliated.
“I think people have this perception of how we work in our field, and the perception is that we work very hard and long hours,” Hopper said.
Though this may be a significant factor, gender roles could also be the culprit, according to Hopper.
“There are many societies internationally (where) the tradition is that females play this role,” Hopper said. “It gets scary to think about starting your career and working really hard toward a career when you also want to have home life and a family and to be able to juggle those two things.”
Now at Missouri State there is an influx of female students joining the field.
“I strongly believe that female students have been encouraged by the visibility of successful women scientists in the department,” Department head and biology professor Alicia Mathis said.
While Hopper’s role as a woman may attract more students, her presence in the classroom may be a reason some decide to pursue STEM professions.
“Tina is an outstanding instructor who makes a real connection with students,” Mathis said. She teaches students at the early stages of their education — including both freshmen biology majors and nonmajors, which is a pivotal time for many students as they make decisions about their careers.”
Not only does this open the door to a more varied workforce, but according to Mathis, “Diversity of experiences and perspectives in research labs lead to more opportunities for discovery. Seeing more and more women involved in STEM fields makes me gratified and hopeful.”
With years of constant consideration for her students in mind, Hopper affirmed, “My intention is always that, of course, I'm there to present the material, but I want to be approachable so that we can learn the material together.”
For those who are interested in STEM majors, Hopper said, “there are going to be a lot of tough courses, so just get through those courses and work as hard as you can for your main goal. Don't let one single course be something that is going to affect you or your future decisions.”
Follow Tess Marquart on Twitter, @tessmarquart
Subscribe to The Standard's free weekly newsletter here.