In middle school, I was the girl who would rather figure out math problems over discussing the latest fashion trends or lip gloss shade. Despite my infatuation with math and science and the fact that my dad was a math professor, I never wanted to show too much enjoyment in the Pythagorean theorem.
Often times I showed just enough interest to prove that I knew what I was talking about, and then I would join my friends after class to complain about how boring Algebra I was. Behind it all, I just wanted to “fit in.” I didn’t want to be labeled as weird or more of a nerd than I was already perceived to be. It was cooler to know what happened on “Pretty Little Liars” or which celebrities were dating each other.
The older I got, the more I wanted to change the narrative that was associated with girls and STEM fields. Why on Earth couldn’t I be beautiful, social and smart?
For years, women in STEM fields had been depicted as “Betsys” who never wore make-up, sported thick bifocals and were far from your typical beauty queens. Even more, the representation of women of color in these fields was worse: it was near nonexistent. How is it that women who contribute to society in so many incredible ways were not being portrayed in a way that showed their intellectual talents?
According to an article written by Dr. Janice Gassam, women only make up about 24% of those employed in STEM fields; of that 24%, only about 9% are women of color. With numbers like this, the question should be “What can we do to set young girls up for success in STEM fields?” As a STEM educator, I have a few ideas as to how we can accomplish this.
Frequent and Early Exposure
A common response I get from my female students is that they were not aware of the various STEM fields they could venture into. Often, their first time being exposed to technology, hard sciences and engineering is in my classroom. From my experience, this lack of exposure begins as early as the first year of life, when babies first start to discover the world around them.
Gender-biased toys, television shows and recreational activities are presented to young children, rather than giving them the choice of which activities to partake in. Girls are given toys like Barbie dolls, while boys are given toys like Legos. Providing kids with an array of toys and activities can be a great way to ensure they have a fair chance at exposure to STEM-related interests.
Shift in Perception
For young girls faced with a dilemma similar to mine, representation is key to empowering and liberating them to reach their full potential. We need to let girls know that, not only is it okay for them to explore unconventional career pathways, it is encouraged. Showing girls that being smart is not synonymous to social detriment opens up opportunities for them to take more educational risks. From this, discussions about the amazing women who have changed the world through STEM can be fostered. All it takes is for someone to show them.
Growing up, I had an amazing mentor who taught me to be fearless and modeled what a strong, intellectual woman looked like. Because of the relationship we had, I knew I wanted to be like her when I grew up. This pushed me to find my niche and pursue what I wanted in life. This story is not unique to me, though. This is the determining factor that shifted the futures of millions of other successful women around the world.
Mentoring is giving back in a way that allows women to pour into the future of the STEM industry. With the current influx of STEM mentorship programs and girls’ STEM camps around the nation, we are slowly creating a climate conducive for income equality and truly diverse career fields.
Still, it begins at home, in our own communities. Eventually, that impact has the ability to stretch worldwide. When it comes to STEM, women can no longer be satisfied with setting the table, we have to want our very own seat there as well.