How Can We Close the Gender Gap in STEM Fields?

Three local stars in the science and engineering fields have some ideas.

The Doctor of Awesomeness.

Among many honorifics Diane Munzenmaier has earned in a career as a physiologist working to understand tumor growth, strokes and how the body heals, the one bestowed by students at Brookfield Middle School is a favorite. Munzenmaier, a program director for the Center for Biomolecular Modeling at the Milwaukee School of Engineering usually teaches serious, focused medical and biomedical engineering students. Yet, with her two classes of middle school kids, it was a mutual admiration fun society. She sees it as recruiting the next generation of scientists – particularly women scientists – because she loves being one.

Munzenmaier is far from the only local star of science serving as an ambassador to the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields. Young girls considering their futures need to know that “women scientists are not scientific nuns!” exclaims Marija Gajdardziska-Josifovska, dean of the UW-Milwaukee Graduate School. She ought to know; she’s a physics professor, researcher and entrepreneur with a tech-startup company whose innovative battery technology just might change the world. And Heidi Dondlinger – a biomedical engineer, global strategist with GE Healthcare and co-founder of an emerging specialty vehicle company – instructs and cheers on girls to become scientists through a STEM camp she works in every summer, like Munzenmaier, apart from her demanding career.


Women of color comprise only 5% of engineers, according to the National Science Board. 


Why are these accomplished women taking precious time to promote their fields? In addition to wanting others to share their joy in being scientists, they recognize a big problem which affects us all: there aren’t enough of them. Despite being half the population and roughly half the workforce, women are a fraction of employees in STEM fields, and the gains over decades have been glacial. In 1970, women were 8% of STEM workers; in 2020, 29%, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The agency projects that STEM field occupations should grow 8% by 2029, compared to 3.7 % for all other occupations. Who will fill those jobs?

Compounding the situation is what Josifovska calls a leaky pipeline of young women into STEM. “More people start than finish, and then they feel like failures,” Josifovska says, something she sees both at UWM and nationally. A Society of Women Engineers statistics compilation found that 32% of women switch out of STEM majors to something else. And of the women who do make it through the pipeline, only 30% of those who earn bachelor’s degrees in engineering remain in the field 20 years later.

In a field built around asking questions, these women are now asking a different type of one: How do we attract more girls and women to STEM fields, and create an environment where they stick with it?


Photo by Kat Schleicher

Making the Unseen Real

DIANE MUNZENMAIER lives in the invisible world. But just because you can’t see something, don’t underestimate it.

“Science’s structure and function creates a perfect design,” she says. “We see the large scale, but we need to burrow down to the cellular level and see how everything fits together.”

The molecular scale becomes visible at the Center for Biomolecular Modeling at MSOE, where Munzenmaier is one of its program directors. She works with a team that trains teachers about biomolecular modeling and produces the kits for them to use in their classrooms. Schools can order, for example, the amino acid starter kit, bringing to life the organic compounds that are cellular building blocks. The center’s rooms look like a giant candy store, with the color-coded molecular structures on display.

Munzenmaier began her career with a bachelor’s in biology from Marquette University, with stints as a cardiothoracic surgery research technician at the Medical College of Wisconsin and periods studying blood vessel formation in diseases and astrocytes (specialized brain cells) in animals that had strokes. Her calling to the classroom has been a constant, whether it’s teaching middle school kids studying proteins or developing curricula for medical and graduate students in physiology and genetics.

And if you’re around her for any amount of time, she’ll probably recommend a book – David Quammen’s The Tangled Tree, for example, a doorstop about the evolution of viruses published before any of us had ever heard about COVID.


Josifovska, Munzenmaier and Dondlinger each have innate ability in the sciences, but their success began with a spark, an inspiration.

Josifovska, 62, was born in the Eastern European country of Macedonia, where six physics courses were required during middle and high school, so her majoring in physics as an undergrad was a natural fit. She sees that emphasis at the primary levels as a prescription for the American education system and the STEM gender gap it’s producing. “Require math and science courses at a very early age,” she says. “If you’re never introduced, even if you have the talent, you won’t go there. When my son was in primary school, I did laser optics demos for his class. The children could experience science and see a woman like their moms doing this.” She sweetened the experience with cookies.


One-third of all U.S. Ph.D.’s in science and engineering are now awarded to foreign-born graduate students. In Southeastern Wisconsin, international students earned 43.6% of degrees in STEM fields. 


In American schools, it’s more likely that a single teacher in a critical class will provide that “aha” moment, as was the case with Munzenmaier and Dondlinger. “I was never interested in science until a high school friend recommended an anatomy and physiology course taught by a quirky male instructor,” recalls Munzenmaier. “I was hooked.” She was active in sports but hobbled under numerous injuries, which led her first to biology studies, then, during graduate school, into the serious world of angiogenesis – the formation of new blood vessels for good, as in injury repair, and for ill, as in tumors.

Photo by Chris Kessler

For Dondlinger, 44, it was a high school physics teacher (like Munzenmaier’s, also a man) who noted her proficiency in math and physics. While pursuing her bachelor’s degree in engineering, she indulged her interest and ability in art by loading up on art electives. She still creates art, and prefers to refer to the STEM fields as STEAM, using the A as an acknowledgment of the role and value the arts have in science and vice versa. “Engineers know details, big picture, marketing and big data,” she says. “Art teaches me about multiple perspectives.”

As the mother of two young children and in her work with the GE Girls STEM Camp with MSOE, Dondlinger has a close-up view of early STEM education. Her kids attended Schlitz Audubon Center’s Nature Preschool, which epitomizes her science concepts. The school conducts as many classes as possible outside year-round, studying bugs, worms, the qualities of mud and Lake Michigan’s ups and downs, ins and outs. “Education and conservation go hand in hand; being outside sparks creativity. Education needs to relate to the outdoors,” she says. “If you’re teaching fractals [endless repeating patterns] in math, relate it to plants.”


Women make up just 13% of U.S. engineers, according to the Society of Women Engineers.


Munzenmaier, 59, is appalled that teachers “ask middle school kids to memorize and identify rocks.” That approach is a world away from her classes at Brookfield Middle School. For her lessons about proteins, the basic building blocks of living things, each child gets a molecular modeling kit. Watching her class on a video, a viewer might think the children were playing, and in a sense they are. Research is about tinkering to discover new things and approaches, she says. It is fun. The children move around discussing findings – amidst a lot of laughter. When STEM is presented this way, by The Doctor of Awesomeness no less, who wouldn’t want to become a scientist?


Photo by Aliza Baran

‘My Mom Sees Atoms’

MARIJA GADARDZISKA-JOSIFOVSKA’S career in science has taken her literally around the world.

She is currently in San Francisco, on sabbatical from her usual duties at UW-Milwaukee – teaching, supervising graduate students and serving as dean of the graduate school – to scale up production for her startup company, COnovate.

Josifovska discovered a process to solidify carbon monoxide to be used as the anode (negative terminal) in lithium batteries – an industrial sector worth $41 billion that could reach $116 billion by 2030. She is COnovate’s chief technology officer; her partner, UWM professor emeritus Carol Hirschmugl, is the CEO. They’ve already raised several million dollars for their company.

An unlikely hero of the young Josifovska was Brian May, lead guitarist of Queen. Once she learned he was also pursuing graduate studies in physics, she never looked back, leaving her home country of Macedonia to pursue a master’s degree from the University of Sydney (Australia), then a Ph.D. from Arizona State University. She has also collaborated at Oak Ridge National Lab, the National Center for High Resolution Electron Microscopy and taught as an academic visitor at Oxford University. Early in her 28-year career at UWM, the National Science Foundation selected her for a Presidential Faculty Fellow Award which netted a half million dollars for research.

Back in grade school, her son, currently a student at UC-Berkeley, gave his teacher a fright when she asked the little kids what their mothers did. He replied, proudly, “My mom sees atoms.”


If you insist on perfection, you rarely take risks. This cultural problem for girls is an impediment to success in STEM. “Girls are taught to be perfect,” Dondlinger explains. “That’s not encouraging. Guys say, ‘Oops, I goofed, so what.’ Girls are mortified.” Even years or decades after childhood, many women remain fearful of failure. Says Dondlinger: “Don’t be afraid; go down that dead end. You didn’t know it would be a dead end. That’s not failure. In a closed system, you keep doing the same thing over and over. Measuring and replicating is not creativity. Science needs those two, but eventually you have to open up the system and risk failing.”

From Munzenmaier’s perspective, what’s hard for women is what makes for success in science. “Creativity is killed by regimented thinking,” she says. “Research means switching from memory activities and entering an unknown area. Labs follow recipes, but research is an open-ended problem. Now, even successful grant writing is a reward for not taking risks. You need all the data before the grant or you don’t get the money.”


In 2019, 11.6% of all degrees awarded by higher education institutions in Southeastern Wisconsin were in STEM disciplines, according to Wisconsin Policy Forum. Black students earned 3.9% of those STEM degrees; Latinx students earned 7.0%.


And then there’s guilt. Women can be experts in this emotion, especially when it comes to family. Munzenmaier knows it all too well. She’s married to a retired aquatic scientist and has two adult daughters, one of whom is a mother herself. She learned multitasking early in her career, entering Ph.D. studies three months after her first daughter was born. Her second was born just before her prelim exams. “It was all very hard work, but the worst was the guilt. It meant dropping children at day care at 6 o’clock a.m. This is women’s conundrum: we have a biological need to be a mother and with our family, yet we enjoy and are capable of important careers.”

Josifovska is too self-possessed to rant in public, but she deplores some science role models in popular culture. She’s had it with the wild eyes and electrified hair (that famous Einstein picture) or bumbling genius portrayal (Doc Brown from Back to the Future). “Who would want to grow up to be like that, especially with popular media’s idealized image of women?” she says.

And Munzenmaier laments our cultural bias against women promoting themselves and their hard work in the lab. “This is particularly true at medical colleges and universities. Your peers and the administration know you, but not the outside world, which rarely learns about leaders or advances. Rather, they see a new pill discovery advertised on TV.”

Dondlinger goes straight for the jugular, identifying why many girls never get to the launch pad: “Girls get the message that if you’re smart, you can’t get a boyfriend.” No wonder Josifovska feels the need to insist women scientists are not nuns. Dondlinger offers this retort: “You don’t want a guy who wants a dumb girlfriend.” She notes that she’s happily married to an engineer, a mom to a son and daughter.

She also appeals to the comforts of life. The median pay for a physicist last year was $128,950, and for engineers it was $83,160, according to federal data. The median wage for all occupations in the United States was $41,950. The numbers speak for themselves. “Think about STEAM career salaries,” Dondlinger says. “Who doesn’t want that?”


Photo by Chris Kessler

A Maker at Heart

HEIDI DONDLINGER likes her blond hair because it absorbs the pink and purple highlights she frequently applies to it. The girls at GE Girls STEM Camp approve.

In between hair critiques, those middle schoolers do hands-on work in physics, math, chemistry, computers and electricity while also learning soft skills like leadership and communication. For five years, Dondlinger has led classes at the local camp, which is a partnership of MSOE, GE Power and GE Healthcare Systems, where Dondlinger is a senior strategic portfolio manager. Working out of the company’s Wauwatosa office, she leads teams developing imagery equipment like MRI and ultrasound machines.

She considers travel “an amazing benefit” to the job, with frequent work visits to India, Germany, Austria, France and Switzerland, but it’s also the foundation for a side venture.

Dondlinger and her husband, Brian, who used his engineer training in a two-decade career at Harley-Davidson, launched their startup Orion Motors at the Milwaukee International Auto Show last spring. Starting with Ford cargo vans, Orion builds vehicles that can easily toggle between a camper and an everyday-use van. The couple have moved the business from a garage hobby to a design/manufacturing space in Glendale with 10 contractor employees.

Whether it’s manufacturing car campers, getting creative in the kitchen or designing their contemporary, multi-level home in Bayside, Dondlinger just won’t stop making things. “I like building stuff for people,” she says. “Whether baking a cake or designing medical equipment, they are just different orders of magnitude.”


There’s reason for optimism, because a major convergence is at hand. Science is exciting and beneficial. Women are smart. The world desperately needs STEM workers – particularly in the physical sciences and engineering. There’s a sick joke among women: “When they (men) need us; they’ll call.” Those hiring managers are calling now.

And when women (and girls) are gutsy and aim high in the sciences, there are no limits to what they can achieve. Ask Andrea Ghez and Jennifer Doudna, two of the 2020 Nobel laureates in the sciences. Ghez, a physicist at UCLA, shared the award for discovering a supermassive compact object at the center of our galaxy – essentially a black hole binding our corner of the universe together.


Women in engineering fields earn 10% less than their male counterparts – somewhat narrower than the 16% gap in the US economy at large. 


Doudna, a biochemist at UC Berkeley, shared for discovering CRISPR/Cas9, a kind of genetic scissors which could become a tool for rewriting the code of life. After attaining the highest honor in science, Doudna spoke with National Geographic about how women can thrive in the field. “First, walk into a room like you own the place. A man would do that without compunction,” she said. “Choose your life partner wisely. Having a partner who is supportive, and having discussions about children, your career, and lifestyle goes a long way … to achieving your goals.”


Freelance writer Judy Steininger is professor emeritus at MSOE. This is her first feature for Milwaukee Magazine.


 

This story is part of Milwaukee Magazine‘s November issue.

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