International female students in engineering face additional difficulties in the classroom

Celeste Ki

Baoyee Leong, a sophomore in mechanical engineering at Iowa State University, walked into her classroom of 30 students. She is one of three females in the class, and the only Malaysian student. This is typical for Leong in all of her engineering classes.

Women are underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields, totaling for 24% of STEM job workers in America according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. This holds true for ISU as well, as female students at ISU currently total for 16.5% of undergraduate students in the College of Engineering, according to the ISU Office of Registrar. For international female students in STEM fields, there can be other difficulties as they make up even less of the population.

Women can often be discouraged from pursuing careers in STEM fields across the globe. According to Sze Kei Lim, a Malaysian junior in biosystems engineering, many Malaysian high schools offer life skills classes that are offered with four different sections which are predetermined for the students. Girls are assigned to gardening or cooking classes, and men are assigned to business or woodwork classes.

“When it comes to operating machines, I have no experience,” Lim said. “I think guys are more exposed to this kind of stuff. It’s preconceived. We don’t touch them, because it’s all guys that touch these things at home.”

It can also be difficult for female international students in STEM majors to make friends with their classmates. “Sometimes it’s hard to join in all males group which make me feel weird,” Ruiyu Sun, a Chinese sophomore in electrical engineering, said. Sun stated that many of her lecture classes have two females, and in recitation she is usually the only female. She also stated that language barriers and cultural differences can make it more difficult to make friends, and that many international students tend to become friends amongst each other.

Despite the difficulties, Sun stated that she enjoyed her major because she found her topic of study to be interesting. “Though sometimes it’s hard to understand things or I can’t get good grades, I can understand how electronic items that we use everyday work,” Sun said.  

Sun encouraged women interested in STEM fields to go for it. “Nothing is so hard that you cannot overcome it,” Sun said. “It’s a cool and interesting major, and the girls I know in this major can always do very good.”

There are other difficulties that come about being an international student in engineering, such as how America doesn’t use the metric system, according to Lim. Lim also stated that there are differences in cultural norms and expectations in her classes. “Sometimes they talk about stuff that we don’t know,” Lim said. “They think we understand but it’s more of an American thing.”