“I would have gone into science.” A student, a humanities major, once said these words to me as we talked about her post-college plans. It was only midway through college that she had learned that the STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) fields offer so many possibilities for careers. I gathered that her high school had not encouraged the study of science, at least among girls.
Here are three ways that scientists, engineers and women in the tech world are seeking to ensure that girls don’t find themselves with such regrets.
At Stanford, Debbie Sterling was one of 181 women in her year to graduate in engineering along with 700 men. Such lopsided numbers are typical; as The Atlantic notes, some 90 percent of America’s engineers (pdf) are male. A San Francisco-based entrepreneur, Sterling is seeking to change this with a toy called GoldieBlox.
GoldieBlox is centered around a female engineer character, Goldie. A set comes with five figurines, a construction kit including plastic pieces, a ribbon and a book/app that tells the story of “GoldieBlox and the Spinning Machine” with instructions to build, step by step, a spinning device. The book/app is key: Central to Sterling’s strategy with GoldieBlox is the idea that girls are more likely to become engaged via a story and, in particular, one that involves helping people.
It can be said that GoldieBlox is playing into stereotypes about girls’ preferences for, well, girly things (ribbon) and gender norms. Sterling argues that it’s necessary to meet girls where they are, as she says in The Atlantic:
When you think about how back in the day, most doctors were male. As women began to gain more power, guess who starts to become doctors? Women. Because they love nurturing and caring about people — it was an obvious step. I think the same thing will happen with engineering, once we learn what engineering really is and we get beyond the stereotype of a nerdy man sitting alone in a cubicle at a computer. Engineers are solving some of the world’s biggest problems and helping people.
2. Wikipedia To Expand Its Entries About Women in Science
I do think Sterling is onto something about the power of stories to engage us. Some stories that really need to be heard are those of women whose contributions to science have been overlooked, if not simply forgotten. Wikipedia, long considered a bastion of 20-something male geekery, will be getting a significant upgrade in its content about women in science.
In a few weeks, the UK’s Royal Society will be holding a large-scale “edit-a-thon” to add to the information in a much-neglected area. Kathleen Lonsdale discovered the structure of benzene, was the joint-first female Fellow of the Royal Society and first female president of the British Association but her accomplishments are summed up in a mere 400 words, notes the Independent. As for Mary Buckland’s archaeological work in the early Victorian era: You can only read about this in the entry for her husband, William Buckland.
Professor Uta Frith, a neuroscientist at University College London, is leading the project and notes that “a perceived under-representation of women on the [Wikipedia] site is emblematic of a wider ignorance of the contributions of women to science.” She and fourteen other editors aim to change this. I am looking forward to reading about the discoveries and lives of many more women and directing students to read these too.
3. WitsOn, an Online Mentoring Program
Hundreds of women in the STEM fields will be providing online mentoring for college students next month via a project called Women in Technology Sharing Online or WitsOn. The project’s sponsor, Harvey Mudd College president Maria Klawe, tells the New York Times that the program can be thought of “as a MOOC — a massive open online course — and a big mentor-fest.”
WitsOn is not a formal course but something more like a huge online forum in which participants (men can ask questions too) can be in contact with women who are prominent names in STEM fields and about those questions they fear to ask: What it’s like to study subjects such as computer science and electrical engineering in which men are very much in the majority? Can one have kids and a family life and work in the tech industry?
Universities including the California Institute of Technology, Harvard, MIT and the University of California, Berkeley, have signed up for the program; students at other universities join can if a faculty member nominates them. Among the 300 or so mentors are Mae C. Jemison, the first black female astronaut; Jacqueline K. Barton, the chairwoman of the chemistry department at Caltech and Padmasree Warrior, Cisco’s chief technology officer.
As Jacqueline El-Sayed, a professor of mechanical engineering at Kettering University, tells the New York Times, WitsOn seems promising, especially as it might help to “bolster the confidence of women who think differently from their male classmates — giving answers that are correct but unexpected, and in response getting what some call ‘the look.’”
I’m wondering if my student ever got that “look” when she was younger and concluded, science was not for her?
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