Because of the current climate in the science fields and the lack of female representation in various STEM jobs, the United Nations has proclaimed Feb. 11 as the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, aiming to ensure full and equal access to and participation in science for women and girls.
STEM is short for Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics. According to UNESCO data (2014-2016), around 30% of all female students select STEM-related fields in higher education.
A History of Women in the Science Fields
Although gender roles were substantially pre-defined in the eighteenth century, women still experienced great advances in science. In the later nineteenth century, the rise of women’s college provided jobs for women scientists and opportunities for education.
In the early twentieth century, the women’s rights movement was in its heyday. Women began to persistently seek higher education and the same careers as men.
Among these careers was becoming a doctor, an accomplishment that could not be reached without successful completion of medical school and earning a Doctorate degree. Thankfully, the perception of female doctors began changing in the years to follow.
While we think about the huge need for more women in the STEM workforce and positions, let me highlight a few women that were so ahead of their time and contributed greatly to society as a whole.
Virginia Apgar: June 7, 1909-Aug. 7, 1974
Virginia Apgar was a physician best known for her work in obstetrics and anesthesia. She developed the Apgar Newborn Scoring System, which became widely used to assess a newborn’s health, and also studied the use of anesthesia on babies. Apgar also helped refocus the March of Dimes organization from polio to birth defects.
Elizabeth Blackwell: Feb. 3, 1821-May 31, 1910
Elizabeth Blackwell was the first woman to graduate from medical school in the United States and one of the first advocates for women pursuing a medical education. A native of Great Britain, she traveled frequently between the two nations and was active in social causes in both countries.
Annie Easley: April 23, 1933-June 25, 2011
Annie Easley was part of the team that developed software for the Centaur rocket stage. She was a mathematician, computer scientist, and rocket scientist, one of the few African Americans in her field, and a pioneer in the use of the first computers.
Lillian Gilbreth: May 24, 1876-Jan. 2, 1972
Lillian Gilbreth was an industrial engineer and consultant who studied efficiency. With responsibility for running a household and raising 12 children, especially after her husband’s death in 1924, she established the Motion Study Institute in her home, applying her learning both to business and to the home. She also worked on rehabilitation and adaptation for the disabled. This just shows that you can be a mom and have a career and be fully successful at both!
Florence Sabin: Nov. 9, 1871-Oct. 3, 1953
Called the “first lady of American science,” Florence Sabin studied the lymphatic and immune systems. She was the first female to hold a full professorship at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, where she had begun studying in 1896. She advocated for women’s rights and higher education.
Current Climate of Women in STEM Careers
Women, in general, still remain substantially underrepresented in the science and engineering workforce, although to a lesser degree than in the past.
- Women make up half of the total U.S. college-educated workforce, but only 28% of the science and engineering workforce.
- Female scientists and engineers make up a relatively large amount in the social sciences (60%) and biological, agricultural, and environmental life sciences (48%), but relatively low numbers in engineering (15%) and computer and mathematical sciences (26%).
How can we encourage our girls to get involved in STEM higher education and careers?
Emphasize all the creative parts of engineering.
Engineering is just as much about creative problem solving and artistic design as it is analytical skills, so actively encourage them to do both.
Ask what they’re interested in, and then do it.
Accentuate your children’s passions to generate excitement about new skills. Using their own words creates more invested interest. Incorporating their interests keeps them engaged with the material and sparks further interest.
Don’t over-emphasize math and science.
One of the biggest hold-ups in the pursuit of a STEM career is the belief that you have to be good at math and science. That incorrect mindset causes a lot of creative people to steer away from the STEM fields, simply because they have the wrong idea. Creative problem solving is ultimately more important over time in the STEM fields.
Give them better tools.
Unfortunately, many girls don’t get the opportunity to do hands-on work at home or school, unless it’s a form of arts and crafts. We should give our girls more exposure to and legitimate reasons to use all kinds of tools, including sensors and power tools. We should be teaching girls that they’re capable of learning and excelling at anything, including how to use tools that have traditionally been used in a more male-dominated workforce.
Surround them with an abundance of good support.
Be sure to have a network for support that will help reinforce the newly-learned skills your girls are obtaining. This will likely increase their level of participation and promote long-term interest.
Find projects that help others.
Research has shown that girls (and boys) respond favorably when STEM careers are positioned as opportunities to help people. Talking about engineering and science as a way to solve problems and improve lives can capture the interest of young humanitarians and provide the spark they need to persist.
Connect with women who are currently working in STEM careers.
Girls who see women working in STEM careers are more likely to consider a career in science, technology, engineering or math. Network with your friends and family members to see who might be willing to connect and talk with your girls. Chances are someone you know, or even you, work in the STEM field and can be a great example of success.
I have worked in healthcare for over 20 years. During that span of time, I have definitely seen an influx of women joining the medical field. And while the current environment does allow for women to be in every field of the sciences, there’s still a very under-represented number of women in the workforce representing the STEM professions. Start the discussions while your girls are young and still have a world of opportunities before them!