Innovating Inclusivity: Empowering Women and Nonbinary Individuals in STEM

CSE 440 Staff
7 min readNov 28, 2023

By Annie Xu, Joshua Peterson, Khushi Khandelwal, Finley Hutchison

Image 1. Proportion of core STEM students in Higher Education that are women or non-binary (HESA, 2023)

OVERVIEW

Many STEM fields are historically dominated by men and are systematically and institutionally misogynistic. As seen in Image 1 above, there is an imbalance between the number of male students in STEM versus the number of women and nonbinary. We aim to create a safe space for female and nonbinary STEM students and foster connection within this subset of the STEM community, all the while promoting a focus on academic support free of the bigotry endemic within the broader culture. To address these issues, we aim to create an app that allows STEM students to find personal and professional connection, mentorship, resources, encouragement, and information about work and class climates. The purpose of this app is to empower women/non-binary people to pursue, succeed, and find mentorship and community in STEM fields.

DESIGN AND USER RESEARCH

We decided to do surveys and interviews. Surveys allowed us to efficiently collect information from a large number of subjects in a very short period of time. It enabled us to discover what features of the application we might want to consider and get a firsthand opinion on the problems that women and non-binary people in STEM face. We sent out survey links on various group chats and social media platforms like EdStem and Discord to get a diverse group of women and nonbinary STEM students from various grade levels and majors. This way, the participants are free to take the survey at their leisure and environment. We also decided to conduct a series of interviews. They allowed us to collect more in-depth personal information, thereby verifying and humanizing data collected using other means. Also, the interviews gave us insights as to what challenges or issues we had not previously considered for women or non-binary people in STEM. This helped us brainstorm features and solutions that might be effective. For the interviewees, we reached out to 3 of our female friends in Computer Science and Civil Engineering majors to gain more personal and in-depth information about what it’s like to be a STEM student as a non-male. These interviews were all conducted in-person. All of our participants for our design research were the primary stakeholders for our design; women and non-binary STEM college students. While there are other secondary and tertiary stakeholders in our design, like male STEM students, STEM faculty members, employers, and employees, we want to focus on our primary stakeholders since we have an incredible amount of access to our direct stakeholders (being college students ourselves) and they are the most affected by our design.

FINDINGS AND RESULTS

Our survey received around 25 responses from a wide range of majors and from both women and nonbinary people, which allowed our conclusions to be more broadly applicable. Throughout our research process, we identified three core issues. Respondents felt anxiety around lack of community and opportunities in their fields, feelings of incompetence, judgment and Imposter Syndrome, and they felt a lack of knowledge surrounding class and company climates. We believe that building a tool that allows them to accomplish this task would allow our prospective users to build a sense of belonging in STEM and a future in the workforce.

First, non-male students feel anxiety around a lack of community and opportunity across their fields. Feelings of isolation run rampant within the community as seen in Image 2, with 92% of survey respondents feeling they sometimes or often feel isolated in STEM-focused spaces. Additionally, our highest rated potential feature was a feature that would provide a calendar of career opportunities and events and a way to meet other individuals attending them (as seen in Image 3). This indicated to us that there is a level of anxiety around missing career opportunities and not being able to find them. We concluded that people seem to generally want a place where they can connect with other women and nonbinary students as well as professionals for advice, career opportunities, and networking.

Image 2. A pie chart showing the results of one of our questions in the survey, specifically on if the person taking the survey has felt isolated in their STEM classes, jobs, etc.
Image 3. A bar chart showing the results of one of our questions in the survey, specifically on how interested the person taking the survey is about a calendar feature showing career opportunities and events.

Secondly, as seen in Image 4, only 8% of survey respondents reported that they felt their peers perceive them to be “very competent”. 36% reported they felt their peers perceived them as somewhat or very incompetent. As researchers, we concluded that non-male students feel very judged by their peers, and as such this reflects on their feelings about their own competence. This was further purported by our interviewees, all of whom indicated they felt imposter syndrome. They also downplayed their accomplishments, with one interviewee saying she may have gotten lucky as a “diversity hire”.

From a survey respondent: “[G]ender discrimination is a large systemic issue, but from my experience in industry everyone’s been very accepting and treats me like anyone else. However, being one of the only girls on the team is isolating. It’s like impostor syndrome on steroids.”

Image 4. A pie chart showing the results of one of our questions in the survey, specifically on the respondent’s feelings on how their peers perceive their competence.

Thirdly, students report feeling lost in regards to class and work climates. They have anxiety around the lack of knowledge about the culture of a particular company or professor, because it’s very difficult to know until you’re in the class/company. Particularly for non-binary individuals, there’s an added fear of transphobia on top of the potential for sexism. Since misogyny is a systemic issue and history has been extremely prominent, there are some professors with misogynistic outdated beliefs, which is incredibly difficult to manage when professors have so much power over students.

From a survey respondent: “The hardest part of being non-binary in STEM is the fear that a company won’t be accepting of my identity, but I won’t learn that until after I’ve begun working there. There are areas of the country and well-known companies that I’d love to work in, and have the opportunity to work in, but don’t feel safe making the move there. I found one company that I’m accepted at, and the thought of giving that up is terrifying”

From a survey respondent: “My first CS class here was with a professor who posted a blog on ‘why women don’t code’ — that [] caused me to change to INFO”.

PROPOSED DESIGN

Figure 1. An user-to-user encouragement feature. Figure 2. A professional networking feature. Figure 3. A company or class climate rating and reviewal feature.

We decided on designing a mobile app because an app would be easier to connect and to talk with other students and working professionals, especially when many people have personal phones and computers. This is especially so for our target audience, women and nonbinary STEM students, since many university students have phones and computers to communicate with each other, do homework, and access classes.

The app supports multiple features that the user can access through the main menu in the app. A prototype flow of our app is shown above. If a woman/non-binary person wants to send kind words of encouragement to another randomized user of the app or send them some sort of inspirational anecdote about how they were able to get their foot through the door, they can utilize the Encourage feature (Figure 1). This way, we get to build a sense of community that so many of our respondents want to feel being students in STEM, a field primarily dominated by men. It also helps combat feelings of incompetence, since repeated posts of encouragement from other women and nonbinary students can help people feel better about themselves.

If the user wants professional mentorship, there will be a feature to connect users to women/nonbinary working professionals in their respective field. They can reach out to the professionals, get advice on how to succeed, learn about internship/career opportunities at that individual’s company, and more (Figure 2). Many of our design research participants indicated that they feel a lack of opportunity, which leads to feelings of imposter syndrome or incompetence. As such, giving students the ability to directly network and talk with a working woman or nonbinary person allows students more access to job opportunities.

We have also included a Climate Review feature (Figure 3) in our main menu of the app in order to share with the women/nonbinary community the reviews for the company that they are working/interning with and what the company culture is like. Having a feature like this would help women and nonbinary students feel more safe and comfortable when applying or going to jobs. This feature can also be used to review classes and professors that they’ve taken at a particular university.

A feature that we’ve not included in the app design picture above but plan to include in our prototype would be some sort of a calendar that can basically give information about career as well as STEM events, opportunities, career fairs, and webinars which can further empower the women/non-binary community. In the calendar, the user would be able to mark which events they would attend and that would be displayed on their profile. This would make it easier to form connections with people who might be attending the same events that they are.

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CSE 440 Staff

University of Washington Computer Science, Intro to Human Computer Interaction