SC - Scientists making SC ‘more resilient’ fed up with gender gap in Army Corps and STEM fields
Just a few days after Hurricane Ian whipped 75 mph winds across the Lowcountry, Sonja Zindars arrived at Folly Beach with a high-powered computer strapped to an ATV.
She supervised a male technician, who drove the four-wheeler up and down the dunes, making sure he was surveying enough of the sand to know how much it had changed since Ian swept through.
“The military has the best toys,” joked Zindars, a geographer for the Charleston district office in the Army Corps of Engineers. She spoke with The Post and Courier about why she remains dedicated to her work and the Corps.
“I have a boots-on-the-ground job,” Zindars said. “That’s how I see it.”
Zindars was out on the dunes that overcast October day to understand just how much sand had eroded from that beach. Any forthcoming federal beach renourishment projects will need to add the right amount of sand, not too much, not too little, she said: “Because it’s all about storm protection.”
Zindars was the only female scientist on site that day on Folly Beach. Working for the Corps, that’s nothing new.
The Army Corps of Engineers has a diversity issue.
The ratio of women to men who work at the 200-year-old military division has stagnated for over a decade. The percentage of women in the service has remained at 32 percent since 2010, according to a 2021 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office. The percentage of Black women has dropped during that same period.
At the Charleston office, things are slightly better. Women make up about 37 percent of the staff. More than a third of all supervisors, who manage the office’s 250 employees, are women.
The Post and Courier spoke with three Army Corps scientists, all at different career stages, to better understand the problems that underlie the division’s gender imbalance.
Whether early in their career or nearing retirement, women at the Charleston office of the Corps are frustrated.
Getting women in the door
Carole Works is the first female chief of the engineering division at the Charleston office. She sees inspiration as key to recruiting more women into this line of work. And she thinks it all needs to start much earlier than college.
“We’re going to Ashley Hall again (this year), and the last time we went there, we met with 11th and 12th graders, and their minds were already made up,” Works said in late January. “We were not convincing them in a one-hour visit about how cool engineering is.”
On Feb. 23, the Corps hosted another engineering recruitment event at the all-girls school in Charleston. It coincided with “Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day” and, this time, the Corps targeted younger students: seventh and eighth graders.
New research confirms Works’ hunch. Reaching kids when they’re young is the best way to dispel culturally ingrained stereotypes. One study found that kids as young as 6 begin to believe false stereotypes that boys are more interested in STEM than girls. STEM is a popular catch-all term for science, technology, engineering and math fields.
Stereotypes alone can’t explain a century of gender imbalance within America’s oldest institution devoted to engineering, which employs 35,000 people nationwide and abroad.
The Corps has trouble recruiting female engineering majors from local universities with engineering programs, including The Citadel. Over the past few years, women from the Charleston office have visited local K-12 schools to try to inspire girls about the work that the Corps does.
“When we put out new intern positions, it’s certainly not 50/50 ... women to men,” said Works. “For every two guys that apply, there’s been one girl.”
Private engineering firms can offer starting salaries more than twice the amount the federal government can offer to new hires with engineering degrees.
“For the poor kids coming out of school, they look at what I can offer, and they’re like, ‘Are you kidding me?’” Works said. “That’s absolutely our biggest problem but, as the federal government, I don’t see that changing any time soon.”
Works said that the Corps is significantly more diverse now than when she started working there in 2012. “The Corps does a great job at promoting women ... once they’re here,” she said.
As the top engineer at the branch, recruiting women is her biggest frustration.