Thelina Smith is graduating with a degree in bioengineering. Most days she can be found inside the USTAR biotechnology lab, laser focused on trying to find a cure for tuberculosis.
“The concept that you can help healthcare to make a device better, to create something that makes someone’s life easier and me I like to help people and I was like this is for me. I want to do this,” smith said.
Bioengineering is an unusual path for a Utah woman. In Utah, job growth in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math is third best in the nation for men. But the institute for women’s Policy Research claims its rock bottom for women.
“As studies show women are reluctant to go into these fields because of their lack of self confidence they don’t see themselves in those roles,” Smith said.
She personally experienced that insecurity as she started down this career path.
“For me it was a little intimidating prior to going into summer camps and having the mentors that I had, I was intimidated by it. I didn’t see myself in that role,” she said.
Rep. Rebecca Chavez Houck and Rep. Becky Edwards both sit on the Utah Women in the Economy Commission. They said there just aren’t enough female role models in these STEM industries.
“The numbers say women work at a higher rate than they do nationwide. The problem is they’re working lower paid jobs,” Rep. Edwards said.
Utah women are four-times more likely to enter a job that focuses on service than a STEM career. A field that draws a lot of women is education. The average teacher will make about $33,000 per year. Meanwhile, a mechanical engineer will pull in about $73,000 per year.
“When that income is lower, families suffer that’s where the problem lies,” said Rep. Edwards.
The women in the economy commission is trying to change that. They’re working on bills that would help encourage women to go for those higher paying jobs. But they believe changes need to happen inside the workplace as well.
“What are the barriers, subtle ones in many ways, that are small shifts of policy or incentives that can be changed on a state level that could make huge differences for women and families,” Rep. Edwards said.
When you compare men and women, with the same education, in the same field, working full time, Utah women make just 70% of what their male counterparts bring home. That’s a difference of $14,478 per year.
So, what causes the gap? The Academy of Management Perspectives broke down the causes, it claims 27% is occupational choice, 21% is the chosen industry, another 10% is based on experience. But the biggest factor of all, 41%, is unexplained. Researchers say it could be anything from overt sexism to unintended discrimination. These legislators want to figure out how to get rid of those systemic road blocks.
“Cause we want young women like Thelina to be able to move forward once they graduate and actualize their full potential,” Rep. Chavez-Houck said.
Until that happens, smith said it’s up to all of us to create the change we want to see.
“Innovation is driven by diversity. When you put a woman on a team you get different results. They have a different input, different perspective. Just really highlighting that we are significant in these fields will change the mindset of everyone,” Smith said.
When Smith is not at school, she’s working with her new organization called “Self-e STEAM.” It encourages women to get into the fields of science, technology, engineering, arts and math. She wants to show other women they can do it too.
“I had a lack of self-confidence and this organization that I’m building is off my own experience. I know what worked for me and what didn’t work and I just want to reach out and help others,” Smith said.
It’s an extended hand that will hopefully close the gap one young woman at a time.
Smith is not stopping at a bioengineering degree; next, she’s getting her M.B.A., then masters in bioengineering. Meanwhile, she plans on continuing her work with her organization, Self-e STEAM,