STEMinist - Brave
Try Googling women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math). You will find articles upon articles about how and why women are underrepresented in STEM. You might also find some articles on female role models, statistics of women in various STEM fields and the rate at which they drop out of higher education, discrimination in the workplace, and so on. The next chapter of this discussion would logically be a conversation about encouraging little girls to pursue STEM fields.
Some people continue to argue that girls just aren’t interested in science and maths. This is a myth scientists have busted repeatedly. Statistics from various journal articles prove that girls and boys show equal interest in science and maths in elementary/primary school. Research also shows that girls’ performance in such subjects matches boys up until biases take over. Similar numbers dismiss the myth that girls are “bad at maths”. The most heartbreaking part of this myth pertains to the fact that most girls just don’t think they’re clever enough to pursue a STEM career.
Table 1: The reasons men and women in US colleges drop out of Calculus (Ellis, Fosdick and Rasmussen, 2016)
There are plenty of steps we can take at an early school level to ensure plenty of exposure and encouragement for girls to pursue STEM fields. We can combat stereotypes early, both at school and at home, to reduce chances of bias influencing budding STEM majors. We can encourage girls’ participation in special programs that focus on introducing them to STEM, such as Girls Who Code. We can provide more female role models and mentors for inspiration and guidance.
While these are all wonderful steps to take, they are incomplete without one additional important step: instilling courage in little girls.
There is a major deficit in what I call “failure training” in girls – something that boys are exposed to significantly more. Boys are encouraged to aim high, kick hard, put all their might into something knowing they may fall and hurt themselves. Girls, on the other hand, are taught to avoid taking risks. Boys eat dirt. Girls play with butterflies.
This basic difference in childhood attitudes towards life’s hurdles leaks into adulthood. It’s hard enough being the only girl in my physics class; do I have to raise my hand and make a fool of myself in front of all these boys who already think I’m less than them? Oh, I’ve been there. I was the type of little girl that cried at the first sight of blood and got sent home from karate class for being too “delicate” with my movements. But I changed abruptly when my dad forced me into community soccer in sixth grade. I had just moved to an American campus in Saudi Arabia and had to learn how to continue to be Indian in a time when only assimilation was acceptable. I was terrible at it, but sports significantly impacted my confidence level at a time when to be “different” meant to be brave.
Image 1: Me in my first soccer team at age 12
There are plenty of ways we can encourage little girls around us to be brave. An important step is allowing them to be imperfect. We can set an example by acknowledging our mistakes and failures and trying again. Let them do things themselves if they can instead of doing it for them.
Another way to inspire braveness is to constantly expose girls to new hobbies and activities by participating in them too. This way, they learn to get out of their comfort zones and be okay with not knowing what they’re doing at first. I have found, even as an adult, that being around animals, playing sports, and learning to love being outdoors are three fantastic ways of learning courage and confidence.
Finally, teach girls that it is okay to think and do things differently. The examples my parents set when we moved to Saudi Arabia helped me stand up to people who proclaimed that I’d forget my mother tongue and lose my tolerance for spicy food within a year of being around Americanized kids. This part is the most important piece of the puzzle, especially for the coming generations that will someday grow up to close the gap in representation in STEM fields.
Marie Maynard Daly, the first African-American woman to earn a Ph.D. in Chemistry in the United States, aptly said, “Courage is a habit, a virtue … you learn courage by couraging.” Bravery is not intrinsic. We have to encourage our little girls to practice it in daily life. And this is only possible if we teach them how to fail, and then get up and try again. For now, it’s going to take a lot of courage to be one of the few women in classes and face discrimination and taboos in STEM fields on a daily basis. We have to let them get hurt early and help them see that scars are something to be proud of because they are a reminder of resilience.
Let your little girl be a princess if she wants to; princesses can be warriors too!
Image 2: Possibly the cutest princess warrior I could find on the internet
By: Shreyasi Mukerji
Source for the table:
Ellis, J., Fosdick, B. and Rasmussen, C. (2016). Women 1.5 Times More Likely to Leave STEM Pipeline after Calculus Compared to Men: Lack of Mathematical Confidence a Potential Culprit. PLOS One, [online] 11(7). Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4943602/ [Accessed 21 May 2019].
For those who are interested in Girls Who Code:
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