A STEM Equation Without Women Is an Inequality

A STEM Equation Without Women Is an Inequality

As the holidays pass through again, gifts seem to be the one thing on most minds—if, you are a celebrant of the current traditions, of course.  When looking at children’s presents, there is always the “toy of the season” that every parent, aunt, uncle, grandparents and the like MUST purchase for that special little someone who will be expecting it.

Debbie Sterling—while trolling the toy aisles one holiday on that very mission—made two very important discoveries: most toys for girls seem to be all about appearance and domestic service, while toys for boys were about building things and saving the world.  What a commentary on a culture that says it promotes everyone to live their dream and that everyone can become whatever they want in life.  It is quite evident that the subtext to that narrative is that girls have one track and boys have another.

We have to give our young women at least a chance to show their talents in fields such as engineering, math, high-level science and technology.  We have to eradicate the notion of the genius-only boys club.

Ms. Sterling states that only 13 percent of women in America are in engineering and in her graduating class at Stanford, less than a quarter were women.  The kicker was that engineering wasn’t even in her plans at all!  A high school teacher, who saw the obvious way her mind worked, suggested she consider engineering as a major in college.  She decided that building and designing solutions to all sorts of problems might be interesting.

Fast forward two years to that toy aisle.  This is where GoldieBlox were born.  Debbie Sterling did not want to create a “girl version” of a traditional toy for boys (aka: a pink tool kit), she wanted to create a toy that first, inspired real thinking and then second, addressed what girls thought about during the problem-solving process.  Boys, she found, tended to build something and then knock it down—just for the sake of doing so, while the ladies wanted answers to questions like: Why are we building this again? Who is it for and how is it going to help?

Obviously, toy companies are just out to please children, but they DO reflect closely held social beliefs that have been slow to change. They seem to paint a rather narrow portrait of the potential of girls, and it can have profound effects.  Research says that girls are discouraged from as early as four.  Four!  They haven’t even made it to kindergarten where the focus is curiosity and exploration. (Shortchanging Girls, Shortchanging America, AAUW, 1994).

One of Ms. Sterling’s antidotes to this shortchanging is for women to tell their stories in order to recruit other women.  In THAT case…we need to hear and study the retell the stories of:

  • Dr. Roni Ellington, associate professor at Morgan State University, who has a TED talk called “The Future of STEM Education” (view video here.).  In her story, she tells of how she was placed in low-track classes until 7th grade until someone took the time to notice that she did not belong there. She now has her doctorate in math education, predicated on that very experience. What if someone had not noticed?
  • Who inspired Ms. Padmasree Warrior, the Chief Technology & Strategy Officer of Cisco Systems?  Not only was she the former Chief Technology Officer for Motorola, but she is currently listed as the 71st most powerful women in the world by Forbes.  Who told her she could be that? (See L.A. Commonwealth Club video here.)
  • How about Dr. Wanda Austin, President and CEO, Aerospace Corporation; Xiaochun Luo, Group Vice President and Chief Scientific Officer, Avon; Dr. Cindy Moss, Director of Global STEM Initiatives, Discovery Education—what experience pointed them in the direction of science?
  • Northup Grumman Corporation, a leading global security company published “100 Women Leaders in STEM” (www.stemconnector.org), which is dedicated to the mission of acknowledging change leaders and visionaries who are helping to ensure that we have another generation of mathematicians, scientists and engineers.

Positive, supportive cultures that promote young women to explore their interests and to excel in math and science are a start.  Scholarships for female students and grants for institutions that promote STEM education among women and minorities as well as professional groups such as the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers are other great inroads.  These appear across the country, yes, but they are intermittent at best.

Dawne Hickton who is the Vice Chair, President and CEO of RTI International Metals, Inc says, “I believe is it the responsibility of educators of all levels, business leaders, our government, academia—all sectors of society—to make world class STEM education and workforce development more of a priority in the U.S. than it is today.  I strongly believe we need to focus on early education and middle school to develop math skills and science interest.”

At one of our Chicago schools—Horizon Science Academy McKinley Park, an all-girl robotics team emerged.  The Pink Technobots are made up of 4 middle school girls who compete against their counterparts AND teams of high school boys!  Their coach is a young woman who just happens to also be their math teacher, and she has cultivated them as a team, bonded with them and supported throughout all of last year.  They came out very accomplished.  They won the Rookie of the Year Award 2013, the Motivate Award and advanced to the state finals. We are looking to create more of these teams in our network of schools across the Midwest.

It has been stated in the media over and over that America’s position of global leadership is tenuous at best.  Some politicos and pundits feel our best days are already behind us.  If we collectively take a stake in this endeavor of being committed to bringing forth the next generation of STEM leaders, provide lasting resources and a sustainable support structure PreK-16 educational track that includes internships, apprenticeships and a myriad of job opportunities that contribute to our country’s growth—not it’s contraction.

We do have a say in our future.  Let’s just do what we have to do and make sure we have the diversity in the ranks to be successful.

Concept Schools is a 501(c)3 non-profit charter school management organization with 30 charter schools in 7 Midwest states.

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