The race to find a silver bullet to solve the “Where are all the girls in science and engineering?” puzzle is fast and furious. And as someone who works to encourage and support women studying in science and engineering fields, I worry our efforts often end up pitting the “pink sparkly girls” against the “digging for worms on a rainy day” ones.
I was one of the girls digging for worms. Rainy days were awesome when I was a kid: I would throw a swimsuit under my play clothes and hit the street. My mom use to talk about her horror of finding me building a mud dam in the street, trying to keep the river of storm water from getting to the sewer system. (Of course, that is also one of my favorite memories from childhood.) For me, science has always had a hold on my brain and heart. From archeology to the space program, I loved it all. Okay, maybe not genetics. Fruit flies were sooooo boring. And with my gift to kill plants, botany was a huge failure for me. But as a biology major, I had to take it all.
Fast-forward 15 years and my career is devoted to supporting young women majoring in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (AKA the STEM fields). When I began at the Women in Science & Engineering program at the University of Illinois at Chicago, our messages were more of a deficit model, i.e. addressing how women with great math skills dropped out of these fields, but with more support they would not have to. “You can do it, ladies! Ignore the B+ and keep at it!”
Today we instead focus more about the amazing careers that await everyone with a STEM degree. With the help of the brilliant Joan C. Williams, I have come to the conclusion that the secret to getting more girls interested in STEM is to address all the girls. It’s not as simple as what color (pink? blue?) we paint LEGOS or how “fun” we make civil engineering look. Rather, we need to reach girls where they’ve started at and then give ongoing encouragement.
I was halfway to this conclusion before I saw Williams at a conference late last year; I asked her how do we market to girly girls without turning off the tomboys and vice versa? She said do it all. If a girl has amazing science and math skills, but is also the first to grab the latest MAC lipstick, encourage her to go into chemistry. I had Karoline Wells talk to my students about how she took her love of lipstick and a degree in biochemistry to start the Elixery , where she formulates lipsticks that are vegan, safe, ethical, and free of animal testing. If a girl is more interested in recycling and sustainability, then I would introduce her to women like Deborah M. Sawyer, President & CEO of Environmental Design International, Inc. Her company works on environmental issues in building and construction. Both Wells and Sawyer will talk your ear off about supporting women, getting them in to STEM and having savvy business skills — however, they have very different jobs and speak to young girls’ many interests.
If a girl in your life expresses an interest in a STEM career, do not stop encouraging her. The social pressures not to appear “too smart” — either for boys’ sake or to fit in with one’s girlfriends — is intense. Praise girls’ struggle to learn new things, especially if they bring home a “B.” The fear of a “B” is not a figment of overly-ambitious girls’ imaginations. Rather, most women in college majoring in STEM have their eyes on a bigger prize: medical school, graduate school or big time internships. (And while I tell my students they do not require perfection, they do require high GPAs.) Take girls’ dreams seriously, even if they want to be the next Jane Goodall, yet hate to get dirty. She will figure out the contradictions one day. Dreaming to be an astronaut, then a marine biologist got me more “awwws” and pats on the head.
Girls today are not as simple as pink princesses, saviors or tomboys. When I speak to girls about STEM careers, I have to address all three of these categories so I can reach everyone who is listening. Creating programs that only talks to one type of girl will turn off the others and limit the one you are talking to: it tells her that STEM is only for girly girls or for those who like to get dirty or those who want to save the world. The truth is that STEM is for anybody who is interested in STEM.
I look at my daughter and see a girl who gets straight As, runs like a banshee on the soccer field, says math is her favorite class and spends “too much time” on her clothes and hair in the morning. She is that perfect mix of girly, sporty and caring. And she has taught me the secret to getting more girls into STEM, even if she still won’t code with me.
Veronica Arreola runs the women in science and engineering program at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Center for Research on Women and Gender. She blogs at Viva La Feminista. You can follower on her Twitter.
[Image of periodic table of the elements via Shutterstock]