Do your ears perk up every time you hear about a mission to Mars, a new discovery in DNA, or a new theory in physics? You're into science, technology, engineering, math: otherwise known as STEM.
We've heard for years that STEM needs women, so you'd expect that there'd be more women in these fields than ever before. But according to the Society of Women Engineers, there's been no real change in the number of women in STEM fields since 2001. As of 2016, 13% of engineers, 26% of the computing workforce, and 9% of the advanced manufacturing workforce are female.
I've got skin in this game. I'm a female science fiction writer, and the fictional version of STEM isn't any easier for women to navigate than the real-world version. My husband is a materials engineer and continuous improvement expert in advanced manufacturing. My niece Debra (Debbie) Sterling is the founder and CEO of GoldieBlox engineering toys for girls. She's a female engineer and Stanford graduate.
Debbie made a simple point when she launched GoldieBlox in 2012 with a successful $250,000 Kickstarter campaign: 50% of people are women, but only 13% of engineers are. What would our world be like if the people who designed our world reflected the ones who lived in it?
I don't think it does people any favors to say it's simple and easy for women to enter STEM fields. A 2018 Pew survey discovered that 50% of women in STEM jobs have experienced discrimination or sexual harassment on the job, compared to 41% in non-STEM fields.
At the same time, progress is being made. STEM women rejoiced this year when Donna Strickland became the third woman to win the Nobel Prize in Physics. Have you heard of the second woman to win the Physics Nobel Prize? Don't feel badly if you haven't. Her name is Maria Goeppert-Mayer. She won the prize in 1972 for discovering the nuclear shell structure of an atom. Maria worked — for low and sometimes no pay — for the Manhattan Project that developed the atomic bomb. Maria's discoveries were possible because of support from her husband Joe, a chemist, and the rest of her family.
Multiple studies confirm that girls are just as good at math and science as boys. A 2019 study just published in Science of Learning found there were no differences in brain functioning between boys and girls between the ages of 3 and 10 while doing math. Yet by high school, boys typically outperform girls at science and math. The difference seems to be social and cultural, not innate ability.
So, let's turn this frown around. Women can do a lot of difficult things and make them look easy. Don't believe me? Check out the Mythbusters multitasking challenge between Kari, Grant, and a mechanical baby.
If you're interested in STEM, don't rule a out career in science, technology, engineering or math as too difficult or unrealistic. Do go into it with your eyes open. Gender bias can still influence job opportunities and work environments. Take advantage of any scholarships for women in STEM that you can find. Work together with other women — and men — to overcome challenges and accomplish the work you need to do. What Debbie Sterling said in 2012 is still true: 50% of us are female and we live in a world designed by 87% men. What could our world be like when it's designed and built by everyone with science and math talent?
Amy Sterling Casil
Amy Casil is a single mom, college teacher, business planner and affordable housing executive who lives in Southern California. She loves outdoor living and animals and is passionate about helping women to avoid her financial mistakes and learn from her successes.
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