Women in History Month: Forging a Definitive Path for Women in STEM Careers

"For whatever reason, I didn't succumb to the stereotype that science wasn't for girls. I got encouragement from my parents. I never ran into a teacher or a counselor who told me that science was for boys. A lot of my friends did." Sally Ride (first American woman in space)
It’s no secret.  Women are largely underrepresented in the sciences and engineering - even in the year 2016.  In fact, one publication that I recently read stated that the number of women in engineering has not increased since 2000!

As the mother of two girls, I’ve always encouraged — but not pushed — an interest in science.  At any age, both of my daughters were always more interested in the sciences than playing with dolls. They are now ages 11 and 14 and their interest continues to flourish. I’m grateful because I think science is AMAZING!  
Despite an early interest in science when I was younger, I didn’t follow that path, and I don’t recall why. Perhaps it was the social cues I received growing up in the 1970’s — girls weren’t particularly encouraged to participate in the sciences like the boys were. Or it’s quite possible that I just wasn’t motivated enough.  I simply don’t remember.  
But what I do know is my daughters are way more motivated than I was at their ages, and I’m truly encouraged by this. Right now, they don’t question if that path will be littered with obstacles to overcome solely because of their gender; they simply recognize their “knack” for science and continue to follow their passion and curiosity.
Quite honestly, I believe now is a great time to be a girl in terms of athletics AND academic opportunities. But if that’s the case, then why does the number of girls who choose a career in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering or math) remain so low? If the motivation in young girls and women today is so much better and the opportunities are more plentiful, why aren’t we seeing a seismic shift in those male-dominated careers, or at the very least, a small ripple of change? Is there something more that we — parents, educators, and policy makers — should do?  

Recently, I stumbled across an article “Here’s Why There Ought to be a Cap on Women Studying Science and Maths.” The title of the article both shocked and intrigued me.  Why would an author advocate for a cap on women studying science and math? As I read the article, I became increasingly disturbed by the author's statements: “[Women] can’t cut it in highly competitive environments;” a cap on females in the sciences should be “set at between 5 and 10 percent;” by allowing girls in the sciences to exceed this cap is a “waste of public money;” and the gender pay gap is a “myth.”
But because I tend to look for the positive in all things, I began digging for more information – searching for something that would indeed make more sense to me as to why women were ignoring their inner voice and turning away from STEM careers and their God-given gifts. And I found it – a concept that made much more sense and, frankly, was much more uplifting to me.
In “How to Attract Female Engineers,” author Lina Nilsson, Ph.D., the innovation director at the Blum Center for Developing Economies at University of California, Berkeley, writes how women feel isolated in male-dominated fields (who wants to be “the only one”?), and those who do excel in those fields are sometimes penalized or criticized for being too ambitious, too assertive, and too confident.  
Nilsson goes on further to say the answer is simple and right in front of us: Women tend to be interested and enroll in, as well as stick with, programs that provide something meaningful — that is, when the work is more “societally meaningful.”  She cites many examples at other well-known universities where programs of study that involve “technologies that improve the lives of people living in poverty” (i.e. designing solutions for clean drinking water and other humanitarian needs) tend to strongly attract and retain women. It’s interesting to note that none of these fields is any less academically challenging or competitive than those which tend to attract men. On the contrary, despite what Milo thinks, women can and do successfully handle challenges, push the boundaries of knowledge and contribute to scientific discovery, and become masters of compassion — all at the same time.
So for all the moms and dads of little girls (and for the girls themselves), as well as for the educators and policy makers in the world, I believe this view of sustainable and meaningful engineering careers is of utmost importance. This could be our (society’s) opportunity to recognize the need, attract and retain females in a STEM field, and make a true difference in the lives of others.  After all, without the full engagement of women in science, we’re truly missing out on the creative and potentially life-changing contributions of half our population. 
So as we celebrate Women in History Month, let’s come together and encourage the young ladies in our lives to follow their STEM passion and dreams, ignore the naysayers, and claim their rightful stake in the future of science!