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Andrus Center Women and Leadership Conference STEM Panel: "Make [It] Sexy"

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"Math's hard. Life's hard, get over it. Let's make engineering sexy," said Amy Moll, the dean of the College of Engineering at Boise State University. - JESSICA MURRI
  • Jessica Murri
  • "Math's hard. Life's hard, get over it. Let's make engineering sexy," said Amy Moll, the dean of the College of Engineering at Boise State University.


When Amy Moll became the dean of the College of Engineering at Boise State University, she had a goal to double the school's female engineering majors.

"I failed miserably," she told hundreds of women and half a dozen men Wednesday afternoon at the third annual Andrus Center Conference on Women and Leadership. "It was 12 percent when I came in. Now it's 13 percent."

Moll was part of a panel discussing barriers to women when entering the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. One problem, she told the audience, is we live in a society where it's OK to say, "I'm not good at math."

"Math's hard," Moll said. "Life's hard, get over it. Let's make engineering sexy. CSI did it with forensics. How many people became forensic scientists because of that show? You know what forensic scientists do all day? They look at poop and blood and fill out paperwork."

To Moll's right sat Boise State math professor Jodi Mead. Her thoughts on the matter were not so pithy.

"Unfortunately, I've come to the conclusion that we live in a culture where we don't support people with female characteristics in math-dominated industries," she said.

Mead said when she's faced with a problem, she looks at all the options for how to come to a solution. She invites her colleagues or even her students to explore it together.

"People with more male characteristics just walk up to the whiteboard and say, 'This is how you do it and this is the best way that it's done.' We don't see women in these industries because our culture doesn't value that approach," Mead said. "Instead, people don't think I know what I'm doing and don't want to work with me."

Marianna Bundnikova, a software engineer at MetaGeek and Boise State alum, is all too familiar with the difference between how men and women solve problems. Bundnikova also spoke on a panel called Diversity Pipeline during last spring's Hackfort, part of Treefort Music Festival. She gave a similar presentation this afternoon.

She said when she sees a girl working through a coding problem, she witnesses a "learned helplessness." That's because as soon as the girl gets stuck and can't figure out a solution, a guy will swoop in and solve the problem for her.

"Don't take away the keyboard," she said. "Let the girls figure out their problems."

Bundnikova, originally from Russia, said she never heard women say they were bad at math until she got to the United States. 

"I'm a woman," she said. "I'm not genetically different than the women here."

When it came time for the audience to submit questions, one that came up frequently was the question of balance: "How is it possible to balance a career in STEM fields with a family?"

Mead took the lead on that one. 

"That's the benefit of being a mathematician," she said. "I know how to problem-solve and organize a solution to my life. Sometimes you just have to say 'no.' No, I don't want to be on the parking committee, but thank you. Sometimes the laundry doesn't get folded."

Julia Oxford, a professor of biological sciences at Boise State, chimed in that no woman should feel she has to chose between a family and a career.

"Finding a little flexibility from an employer can make a huge difference," she said. "You just have to find the right place for you."

Moll is still looking for ways to increase the female enrollment in her engineering department. She has several ideas in mind for recruitment, but she encouraged audience members to go inspire at least one little girl to become interested in math or engineering.

"You don't have to be in advanced placement math," she said. "If you're not in Calc 1, it might take you five years [to graduate college] but hey, it was going to take you five years anyway."

The conference continues through Friday, Sept. 11 in the Boise State University Student Union Building.