There have been many stories in the recent media highlighting the lack of women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) fields, and a recent issue of The Atlantic offers an eye-opening analysis of this very issue in a piece called “The Confidence Gap.” Authors Katty Kay and Claire Shipman cited lower self-confidence in women as a key barrier to success in any field, and emphasized that “success… correlates just as closely with confidence as it does competence.”Ł
As a senior manager at The Nature Conservancy, one of the world’s largest conservation organizations, this article deeply resonated with me. Despite a recent promotion and professional achievement award, I regularly struggle with debilitating bouts of self-doubt–often to my own professional detriment.
This begs the question: How can we ensure more young women excel academically and are able to envision themselves succeeding in science (and other male-dominated fields)?
The answer is clear: Women need support throughout their academic and professional careers–and it should start early. We cannot wait until they enter college or the workplace to make deliberate investments in closing the gender gap. There are two key reasons why. Kay and Shipman note that girls experience a larger decrease in self-esteem during adolescent years than boys, saying “girls lose confidence, so they quit competing, thereby depriving themselves of one of the best ways to regain it.” From there, they risk setting off a vicious cycle of non-pursuit, allowing challenging or non-traditional paths to pass them by.
Secondly, four out of five students who enter STEM fields in college decide their major in high school or earlier. It stands to reason that the earlier young women are exposed to science and encouraged to take on challenging opportunities to boost self-efficacy, the more likely they are to learn the tools and strategies necessary to overcome obstacles. Those skills are not only valuable in school, but throughout one’s professional life.
The good news is that more business, non-profit, and public sectors are joining forces to address this important issue. In partnership with The Toyota USA Foundation and science-focused high schools across the country, The Nature Conservancy established Leaders in Environmental Action for the Future, or LEAF, to help empower more young women and help expose them to the natural sciences. A recent survey of participants found that a surprising 64 percent of respondents are now pursuing STEM degrees–more than two times higher than the national average. And perhaps more importantly, studies revealed a significant increase in self-efficacy among participating females.
Last month marked what would be the 107th birthday of Rachel Carson, long hailed as the mother of the modern day environmental era. Carson spent the bulk of her professional career as a marine biologist, but she is best known for her book Silent Spring, which ultimately led to the ban on the insecticide known as DDT and launched a public and political groundswell of environmental activism that is unprecedented to this day. What is surprising, though, is that Carson was initially reluctant to write this book: She believed others were better qualified to investigate the pesticide industry. Many believe Silent Spring was the primary influence behind the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970, which later informed the Clean Air Act, the Federal Environmental Pesticide Control Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act.
Can you imagine what this world would look like today if she had listened to that nagging feeling of self-doubt?
Now more than ever, as we face challenges like climate disruption and resource scarcities, we need to empower more young women in science to address the issues that imperil humanity at a global scale.
Brigitte Griswold is the director of youth programs for The Nature Conservancy.áIn addition to overseeing the LEAF program, Brigitte has also served on the Diversity Council of the Land Trust Alliance and The North American Association for Environmental Education. Griswoldáis a 2009 Fellow of Green for All, a national organization dedicated to building an inclusive green economy, and a 2010 Fellow of the Center for Whole Communities, which promotes community access and relationships to nature. She led the Education Advisory Panel of The National Forum on Children & Nature and is a Regional Leader of the Children and Nature Network.
By Brigitte Griswold,áThe Nature Conservancy
[photo: A young woman observes a young longleaf pine tree at Fort Benning in Georgia. Credit: Erika Nortemann/The Nature Conservancy]