STEM: Not Just Men in Lab Coats

What do you picture when thinking about an engineer? A train conductor, an old man with crazy gray hair, possibly a young man wearing jeans and a sweatshirt? When asking an audience to picture an engineer during her TEDxTalk, Debbie Sterling, engineer and founder of Goldie Blox, found these three images to be the most popular. Very rarely was there someone in the audience that pictured a female engineer, especially not one that looked like Sterling. In fact, studies show that “the public’s image of a scientist hasn’t changed since the 1950s”. This shows that in America, our culture has defined an engineer in a way that makes girls feel as if they don’t fit in, and in an age where technology rules our lives, girls are continually being forced out.

So, why does this matter? Why should you care that only 24% of the people that work in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) careers are female? The fact is that diverse engineering groups make better decisions leading to better solutions, which develop into products that help a wider range of people improving life and the economy. One reason why girls don’t go into STEM is because of the feeling that they don’t fit into the STEM community. Society can help diminish these feelings by spreading information about women in STEM. Introducing children to STEM at younger ages and informing teachers and parents about how to keep girls interested in math and science would also greatly help.

Infographics from Verizon’s #InspireHerMind campaign

In a world where information is only a few clicks away, one would think that there would be a plethora of information about women in STEM online. That is just not the case, however. Women are not usually honored for their work as much as men, which prevents their products from being seen. Current women, like Dr. Law, a Professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at the University of Delaware, are trying to counteract this issue, by presenting their work at as many conferences as possible. In doing so, they show that women too can succeed in STEM. The idea that women can succeed in this field is crucial to inspiring the next generation of female scientists. If young girls know that other women have been successful, then that will give them the motivation to try a career in STEM. The problem with this method of spreading information about women in STEM, is that it doesn’t reach young girls. For this reason, women have looked to social media.

Social Media Could be Part of the Cure

Current women in STEM are trying to change the perception of what a scientist looks like through Twitter hashtags. Some of the most popular are #ILookLikeAnEngineer, #STEMwomen, and #inspirehermind. Examples of tweets including these hashtags are shown below.

Pictured above is an amazing young girl that developed a product that could be used to test for lead in water.
Pictured above are Lego figures of famous women that have worked for NASA.

Social Media is a great way to reach teenage girls that are interested in math and science because it can allow them to join the scientific community and feel like they’re worthy enough to go into such a male dominated field. The first of these two tweets shows a young girl that made a device that would help her community detect lead in their water. Sharing stories like this one on social media, allows young girls to discover the impact STEM has on society and become inspired to help their community through a career in STEM. Showing girls that they can go into STEM, through inspiring stories like Gitanjali’s, is important to the growth of women in these careers because many girls at that point in their lives feel as though they are not smart enough to go into STEM. When they think about scientists, their minds go straight to Einstein and other quote unquote geniuses. Therefore, they believe that in order to go into STEM, they too have to be some kind of “innate genius” (Law). For example, girls in Computer Science classes often times have little to no confidence in their coding abilities because they “already hold stereotypes of computer scientists as socially isolated young men whose genius is the result of genetics rather than hard work,” which causes them to think that they are just not as good as the guys in their class (Pollack). If young girls were simply introduced to STEM at a younger age through inspirational stories like the ones shared using hashtags on Twitter, they would be able to build their confidence in skills related to STEM and be less tempted to stay away from STEM when it came time for choosing a major in college.

Immersing Young Girls in STEM

“Wearing tutus and building belt drives.” -Debbie Sterling

Toys, TV Shows, and books could be the solution to keeping girls interested in math and science. Very few items in the “pink aisles” of toy stores contain things that help young girls develop critical thinking and spatial skills. For this reason, some companies and entrepreneurs have made it their goal to create toys that would cater to the development of these skills in girls and inspire them to go into STEM. Examples include Goldie Blox and the new Lego “Women of NASA” collection, which is pictured in the second tweet. (other toys) Debbie Sterling, the creator of Goldie Blox, wanted to create a toy that would “allow girls to discover a passion for engineering at a much earlier age than [she] did.” Goldie Blox is comprised of a book about Goldie, the first girl engineer in a children’s book, and construction tools, which allow readers to build simple machines that help Goldie solve the problems that she encounters. Sterling thought that she hit the jackpot when she saw that she could get “little girls wearing tutus to build belt drives”. You would think that toy companies would want to bring such a unique item into stores as soon as possible, but Sterling’s idea was rejected. The old men running the companies told her, “it wouldn’t sell,” but parents told her otherwise, so she continued to work out of her apartment to make her dream a reality. The Lego company has also tried to spark an interest in math and science, by creating a collection that would provide young girls with role models. “The set features mini-figures of 4 pioneering women of NASA — Nancy Grace Roman, Margaret Hamilton, Sally Ride, and Mae Jemison — and 3 builds illustrating their areas of expertise.” Finally, TV shows can inspire older girls to go into STEM by showing them the impact their future discoveries could have on the world and can help current women in STEM promote their work. “Since the airing on PBS of a documentary that features Jean Bennett’s (Professor of Ophthalmology at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine) successful gene therapy, it has been accepted by the FDA.” TV Shows would have a double benefit for women, because it would allow them to inspire the next generation of scientists while also promoting their own work. Along with these things, parents and teachers can help young girls find their passion for STEM.

What Parents and Teachers Can do to Help

Since parents and teachers interact with young girls the most, they can have a tremendous impact on their likes and dislikes. They can help girls keep their love of math and science, but first, they must change their “old world view” of scientists. A commercial made by Verizon titled “Inspire Her Mind,” demonstrates how parents’ words cause girls to shy away from exploring their potential in science.

Phrases like, “Who’s my pretty girl,” and, “Don’t get your dress dirty,” give girls the perception that they will only ever be pretty. Why can’t parents instead say, “You’re so smart”? My parents never limited me. I was always able to help my dad build things and explore my passion through science with my mom, who’s a chemist. I wish that everyone’s parent could do the same. Once parents and teachers change the way they approach girls, they could inform girls of the many opportunities for them in STEM. What often happens now, is that girls discover STEM very late in their schooling and don’t fully understand what they can do with a degree in STEM. This is where science teachers come in. Science teachers should dedicate a few minutes of every class to talk about careers in STEM and include technology in their classrooms daily. This sounds like a simple fix, but studies show that “78% of U.S. teachers feel they have not received enough training to be able to teach technology in the classroom,” (Weldon). For this reason, school systems should better equip teachers, so they are able to advance their students’ technological skills. Another issue in science classrooms, is that women scientists are rarely mentioned. Microsoft created a video that clearly shows the lack of knowledge girls have about women in science.

When asked to name a few inventors, the girls list off several men. When the question is changed slightly by adding the word female, they were left stumped. This goes to show the lack of information there is about women in STEM. Parents and teachers should make it a priority to provide children an equal number of male and female role models. In doing so, children will be more confident in their abilities and find a passion for a subject, which will motivate them in life. Parents and teachers can change the way children see the world, so they need to make sure that every child is inspired to do what he or she loves to do, no matter what stereotypes there may be.

It’s Time to Let Girls In

Overall, it’s not girls that need to change, it’s society. The stereotype that a scientist must look like an old white man with gray curly hair and glasses needs to be erased. Women have just as much knowledge as men and should therefore be considered equal when entering careers in STEM. Society can change this perception by spreading information about women in STEM by any means possible. Hashtags and social media in general have helped create online communities, but news articles and Youtube videos can have the same impact on the community. I hope that women in STEM continue to spread their work like Dr. Law does with her group, so new generations of scientists have role models to look up to. Toy companies and children’s authors can inspire young girls to find their passion for science, as well. Although it will be difficult to change the entire community’s perception of scientists, with enough proof that women can go into these subject areas, those who believe that only men can go into STEM will soon be of the minority.

References

Bogomaz, Olga. “Inspire Her Mind Verizon Commercial.” YouTube, YouTube, 18 Dec. 2015, www.youtube.com/watch?v=DQXZ_g2d5ao.

Edwards, Amanda, and Dr. Stephanie Law. “Law Personal Interview.” 27 Sept. 2017.

Microsoft. “What Are You Going to Make?” YouTube, YouTube, 7 Mar. 2016, www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y8DBwchocvs.

Pollack, Eileen. “What Really Keeps Women Out of Tech.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 10 Oct. 2015, www.nytimes.com/2015/10/11/opinion/sunday/what-really-keeps-women-out-of-tech.html.

Smith, Jamie Davis. “Why Girls Leave STEM — And What You Can Do About It.” The Huffington Post, TheHuffingtonPost.com, 5 Nov. 2017, www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/why-girls-leave-stem-and-what-you-can-do-about-it_us_59ff876ee4b076eaaae270c2.

TEDxTalks. “Inspiring the next Generation of Female Engineers | Debbie Sterling | TEDxPSU.” YouTube, YouTube, 19 Apr. 2013, www.youtube.com/watch?v=FEeTLopLkEo.

Weldon, Michele. “Women Leaders in Science Under Microscope: Funding Needed For STEM Careers.” The Huffington Post, TheHuffingtonPost.com, 1 Nov. 2017, https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/women-leaders-in-science-under-microscope-funding_us_59f9d842e4b0412aab840c9a