I remember sitting in my 9th grade computer science classroom, wondering why I was one of only two girls present. Unfortunately, it's always been like this. Women have been making monumental contributions to science and technology throughout history, yet do not gain the approval of society or their peers. And despite society's immense progression, research shows that women are underrepresented in STEM fields, especially computer science and engineering.
Each year, more women drop out of STEM related careers than men, increasing the gender gap. Is this because of an innate inability of the woman to perform as well as her male colleagues? No. This starts young, when toys involving construction, engineering, and science are geared toward boys, while girls are labeled "tomboyish" when seen playing with such things. This attitude worsens in school, where the few girls in a high-level science or engineering class may feel out of place or unrecognized. If a female does decide to pursue a STEM career, the discrimination only continues into college and the workplace. According to one study, 72.4% of survey respondents working at various scientific research field sites reported that they had seen or heard about inappropriate or sexual remarks being made in their place of work. Women respondents were 3.5 times more likely to have experienced sexual harassment than men. Clearly a problem. But we need to understand that this issue is much deeper than STEM - it's about society's definitions of masculine and feminine, and how it creates an unconscious bias in everyone.
So how do we combat this?
First of all, to encourage the girls in your life to pursue their real passions, you must destroy your own unconscious bias. Don’t contribute to the pseudo-empowerment of women by sugarcoating STEM and assuming that girls will only be drawn to robots covered in bows and glitter. I remember an FTC competition where my fellow female team member and I were looking at another team’s outreach poster, when a parent from that team walked up to us and said, “You know why you girls like that poster? It’s because it was made by girls”. Though this comment may have been well-intentioned, we felt his tone clearly implied that females are better at non-technical aspects of FTC, and that girls, no matter what their personality is, will be drawn to traditionally feminine tasks. We need to stop labeling girls as another “class” of people and instead focus on their individual talents. In our push for equality, are we putting too much emphasis on gender? Labels only divide people further.
Right now, the effort for equal representation of the sexes in STEM fields is led by women, which seems logical. But we need all people, all humans in general, to push for equality. We need every kind of person to welcome every other kind of person into STEM, and we need men and women alike to advocate for the end of sexual harassment in the workplace. We need to awaken people and make them aware of their bias. With awareness comes action, and with action comes change. This needs to happen, and it needs to happen fast, otherwise we may just be stifling the next Marie Curie or Ada Lovelace.
Check out these links - just a few of the many organizations promoting female involvement in STEM!