Women in #STEM, What Do You Think?

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photoWomen hold more than half of U.S. jobs. But when it comes to working in STEM fields, like science, technology, engineering, and math, they make up less than 25% of the workforce. The numbers are even lower for computer science.

I worked in several all-girls’ schools in the K-12 space, so I’m familiar with a lot of the research and recommendations. But now that I’m working beside women in STEM, I figured it’d be a good idea to ask three of them what they think.

Let me introduce them:

  • Becky earned a degree in computer science from Harvey Mudd College and is a full-stack developer.
  • Emma earned her master’s degree in statistics from Stanford and works as a statistician and R programmer.
  • Esthena earned her degree in mathematics from Stanford and works as a data scientist and developer.

I asked each of them to respond to a set of open-ended questions centered on how they got to where they are, as well as advice they’d offer young women and employers. After reading what they wrote, I was struck by the themes that emerged across their responses. I shaped them into seven recommendations, each of which, I believe, invites both action and discussion.

Provide exposure and access, early and often. Design thoughtful ways to expose girls and young women to STEM fields and subjects. They won’t know they like it until they experience it. For example, Becky took a computer science course as a first-year college student. The fact that she could build things immediately, on her computer, gave her such a kick that she switched majors. Emma had her first statistics course – advanced placement statistics – in high school. For her, it was life changing. She’s grateful she had access to this course in high school, since many of her friends and colleagues didn’t have access until college. Similarly, Esthena blew through her high school math courses, including advanced placement BC calculus, before she graduated. A supportive father, a nearby college, and a high school that supported her passion meant she could take advanced math courses daily while in high school.

Get to the good stuff faster. It’s hard to get excited about vegetables if all you ever eat is broccoli. We need to share the interesting and relevant parts of the field sooner. Becky shared how this impacted her decision to change her major from chemical engineering to computer science. She was slogging through course after course in chemistry and physics as part of her major. All the basics. All the boring stuff. It wasn’t until she had the chance to build something someone could use right now in a computer science course that she realized she didn’t have to wait until she was a junior or senior to get the good stuff. Similarly, Esthena shared that while taking college math courses in high school, she realized the subject wasn’t all about rote mechanics, but instead about really interesting, real-world problems. Emma felt the same way. Once she had access to actual data sets, she knew she was tackling problems real-world statisticians were trying to solve. Likewise, Emma touts the importance of internships. She served as an intern for a number of organizations during college and graduate school, where she learned to apply book knowledge to real-world problems.

Couch it as hard fun. We have to normalize that it’s a fun challenge to tackle difficult problems. Yep. Doing something hard and figuring it out is fun. All three women wrote about the hard side of it. When you’re solving real problems, there’s no rulebook. You spec out methods and approaches, draw on experience, and research what others have done. But, at the end of the day, you try things and they don’t work. That’s part of the process. Or, you get stuck and don’t know what to try, and that’s part of the process, too. For each of these women, it’s about hard fun. For them, nothing matches the pride and excitement of figuring it out.

Deconstruct the genius myths. Movies are movies, and certain stories sell. Most people who solve hard problems aren’t geniuses, yet they’re doing incredible work. All three women wrote about the genius myths, the stories of the brilliant programmers and mathematicians. They don’t think of the work they do as requiring brilliance or speed. Instead, they talk about working efficiently, deliberately, and strategically. They see the genius myths as destructive because they imply that if you’re not great at it immediately, you’ll never be. They’d each say that certainly wasn’t the case for them. In fact, Esthena still thinks about the hardest course she ever took – Algebra I in 7th grade. She just couldn’t get it. Yet today she’s a high-performing data scientist.

Beware the barriers. What are the gate-keeping mechanisms we put in place with good intentions but poor outcomes? For example, while placement in Algebra I in 7th grade meant Esthena was on track for taking her high school’s highest level math courses before graduation, she’s conflicted about math tracking, especially in middle school. Instead, she’d advocate for all students to have access to interesting, challenging problems, no matter their math placement. Placement levels can do a number on how kids’ see themselves and their abilities.

Discuss impostor syndrome. Impostor syndrome often strikes highly accomplished women. They see themselves as frauds and can’t internalize their accomplishments. Becky earned her degree from Harvey Mudd College, where Maria Klawe, an outstanding woman in STEM advocate, is president. A mathematician and computer scientist at a time when even fewer women worked in the space, as well as the first woman many times over in holding academic leadership positions in STEM academic departments, schools, and colleges, Klawe speaks openly about how she’s wrestled with impostor syndrome and continues to do so today. Without even realizing what it’s called, Emma and Esthena wrote about experiencing this phenomenon, as well. It’s a problem, and we need to normalize it by talking about what it is and how it feels and the fact that even the most accomplished people, especially women, feel it.

Build an infrastructure of role models and mentors. Role models and mentors offer support and serve as proof that you, too, can do this. The problem is that when we most need them – when we’re struggling the most – we’re often least capable of expending the energy necessary to find them. That means organizations, like schools, companies, and non-profits, need to build an infrastructure of role models and mentors and opportunities to connect as part of business as usual. Especially at the K-12 and college levels, we need to make this a standard part of our practice and we need to assist young women in networking in and out of school to gain this skill.

How are you tackling these topics in your school, organization, your family? What challenges are you facing? What successes are you seeing? Any resources to share?

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