As Maria Mitchell so eloquently put it, “How much science needs women!”
The quintessential scientist, Mitchell is renowned for her discovery of the C/1847 T1 non-periodic comet, dubbed “Miss Mitchell’s Comet” after her. Her major contributions to science are not restricted solely to the domain of academic achievement; throughout her career as a professor of astronomy at Vassar College, she continued to struggle tirelessly for gender equality in science.
Frustrated that female science professors at Vassar College were paid less than their male counterparts, Mitchell fought for equality in the payment of professors in an uphill battle that she rightfully won. Despite the prevailing dearth of women scientists in multidisciplinary science societies in 19th century America, Mitchell never ceased to believe in the need for women representatives in science, and became the first female member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1850.
Maria Mitchell’s dynamic passion for extending gender frontiers and advocating for women in science remains relevant today.
Entering momentous times in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), which are marked equally by the blessings of cutting-edge research and the afflictions of the gender gap, we must reflect on the ways through which we can motivate women around the world to pursue careers in STEM. By encouraging more women to enter STEM industries, we will be able to harness an optimal cross-fertilization of skills, and accordingly maximize innovation and catalyze advancement.
But attracting women to STEM is easier said than done. The STEM industry is too easily stereotyped as “a man’s man’s man’s world”, and it is this stereotype that, continually drilled into girls throughout their childhood and adolescent years, ultimately undermines girls’ interest in STEM. Girls grow up falsely believing that they are not as intelligent as their male counterparts when it comes to math and science, and are hardly ever encouraged by their family members, peers and teachers to opt for STEM courses at the high school, let alone collegiate level. Compounding this stereotype is an absence of role models for girls.
As such, curiosity for STEM among girls dwindles. Any residue of passion for the field takes a backseat behind what is accepted and customary. And from this, not only are women in STEM few and far between, we also run the risk of alienating an entire population whose talents, skills and educational backgrounds contribute to much-needed innovation.
Such grim realities necessitate inspiring change. It is reassuring that arguments for introducing women to STEM fields are regaining velocity and stepping into the foreground in the form of reports, op-eds, and public speaking events. Finally realizing that many girls’ lack of interest in STEM starts during their early years, educators have made remarkable strides to improve the K-12 math and science curricula and develop girls’ STEM experience both inside and outside the classroom.
Taking it one step further, the University of Chicago’s Argonne National Laboratory hosted an “Introduce a Girl to Engineering
Day” (IGED) on February 20, 2014 in an effort to give middle school girls the chance to expand their understanding of STEM. IGED came replete with lab tours, technology exhibitions and a hands-on data collection experience, but arguably the most meaningful facet of the day was a mentorship program with women engineers and scientists. The presence of female role models in STEM is essential to eliminating stereotypes and bolstering self-esteem in young girls. By introducing girls to women who have successfully overcome the hurdles in their chosen STEM fields, girls will be imbued with not only a clear picture of the industry needed for rational decision-making, but also the confidence that they can, like their seniors, succeed in STEM.
Inspiring change in STEM is paramount – STEM certainly does need women.
Striking a gender balance in STEM is not an overnight process, and instead commands interventions to be accrued and executed over the course of a girl’s childhood and adolescent years. Introducing girls to role models at a young age is only the first strategy we must invest in to instigate this change, but it is a strategy that has proven effective in keeping stereotypes to a low and influencing more girls to enter STEM fields. Now that’s an intellectual way to challenge the status quo and inspire advocacy for women in STEM.