More Than a Fairy Tale: Encouraging Girls in STEM
6.4.12 | In a short amount of time, voting on proposals for TEDxUChicago 2013 will end. So, before you continue reading this post, please take a moment and vote for the topic currently in second place: “How to Raise a Feminist Princess,” a talk on how to counter the lack of choices available to young girls.
Full disclosure: I know and admire the speaker, Veronica Arreola. She’s the director of the Women in Science & Engineering Program at the University of Illinois at Chicago and an inspiring role model for women and girls. She gets the problem with the princess-ification of girls’ childhood, and knows that the solution is not to wipe out pink tutus and tiaras, but, rather, to expose girls to a wide range of activities while also uncovering feminist themes in traditional narratives.
Why is that so important? Because we still live in a world where girls and women are too often erased from the main story or reduced to small, insignificant roles.
Examples are easy to find. Let’s head over to The New York Times, where a story on a sexual harassment lawsuit in Silicon Valley opens with this gem:
Men invented the Internet. And not just any men. Men with pocket protectors. Men who idolized Mr. Spock and cried when Steve Jobs died. Nerds. Geeks. Give them their due. Without men, we would never know what our friends were doing five minutes ago.
Xeni Jardin has a must-read response at BoingBoing.net that includes a smart rewrite of the intro:
Radia “Mother of the Internet” Perlman and the ghosts of RADM Grace Hopper, Ada Lovelace and every woman who worked in technology for the past 150 years frown upon you, sir. Women may have been invisible, but the work we did laid the groundwork for more visible advancements now credited to more famous men.
“Men are credited with inventing the internet.” There. Fixed it for you.
There’s a long history of women in computing, though you wouldn’t know if you didn’t look. This invisibility has far-reaching implications for the future involvement of women in STEM fields—if girls don’t see themselves represented, they’re not likely to believe they belong.
As Idit Harel Caperton recently wrote, “From what I hear in conversations with young women who dared to step in and discover their ‘STEM-Power,’ right now, in fact, the only thing holding most girls back from acquiring the computer science education they need in order to gain their rightful place in technology careers is an antiquated cultural attitude.” Caperton includes a good round-up of organizations that are working to ensure girls have the chance to pursue STEM careers.
The issue has long-lasting social, cultural and economic implications. Over at Huffington Post, Karen Purcell, author of “Unlocking Your Brilliance: Smart Strategies for Women to Thrive in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math,” writes that the United States is missing a strategic opportunity by not doing more to encourage female students to purse STEM fields.
“If we want to attract the best and brightest minds to the fields that will move us forward in the 21st century, we can no longer look to only half of the population for solutions. For this reason, it is important to confront gender stereotypes head-on, and long before young people are faced with declaring their majors at the college level,” writes Purcell, adding:
By maintaining certain fields as male-dominated, we are also allowing the culture within those fields to be established and maintained by men. Therefore, the males in math- and science-related institutions and workplaces will continue to foster cultures that only meet the needs of men. These male-oriented cultures are not inviting to women, and as a result, they deter young women from choosing fields in math and science even if they have exceptional abilities.
Maria Klawe, president of Harvey Mudd College, is finding success changing the gender gap. According to this New York Times story, women accounted for nearly 40 percent of the computer science degrees Harvey Mudd awarded this year. Klawe, a mathematician and computer scientist, also advises other universities and corporations on recruiting and retaining female students in STEM fields.
In the same story, Jennifer Tour Chayes, managing director of Microsoft Research New England, notes that women often internalize the “impostor syndrome,” doubting that they belong in male-dominated fields. Klawe still experiences it herself.
“If you’re constantly pushing yourself, and putting yourself in new environments, you’ll feel it over and over again,” she said. “So the only really important thing is not to let it stop you.”
And to let girls know that there’s a big world out there, beyond the kingdom, in which they can truly rule.
Leave a comment
Comments are moderated to ensure topic relevance and generally will be posted quickly.