This post was originally published in Mamalode April 13, 2017.
During a time when we’re pushing so hard to close the gender gap in STEM fields, we must also recognize that these career options are not for everyone. Or are they?
I have had the opportunity to learn from some amazing women in STEM during my research process for STEM Girls Books. These women are sharing not only their own stories, but also insight to help parents identify specific traits that a child may possess that could indicate an interest or aptitude for STEM.
A love of Legos, brilliant math skills and master puzzle solving abilities are among the most obvious signs of STEM aptitude. But does that mean we should rule out ‘girly girls’ or struggling math students as some of the next great contributors to STEM innovation? Not necessarily.
Below are five surefire ways to keep girls out of STEM that are based on misinformation or outdated thinking.
1. Treat her like a boy.
In the quest to open more opportunities for girls to succeed in STEM, the goal is not to discourage her from being true to herself. Children can hone their creativity and problem-solving skills whether they’re playing with dolls or Hot Wheels. Taking an interest in STEM does not require compromising her femininity. Natural child’s play that involves costumes, sparkles and dreams of happily-ever-after all provide fuel for the imagination. Creativity and the ability to bring vibrant color – both metaphorically and literally - to an otherwise black-and-white world are key ingredients for the problem-solving scenarios of STEM careers.
Chemical Engineer, Marissa Buck, shares how her love of art as a child “helped develop creativity that is important for finding innovative solutions to problems.” Our future innovators will be a beautiful melting pot of shapes, sizes, colors, cultures, interests and talents - we need it that way.
2. Count her out because math is not her strong suit.
Let’s be honest. Not everyone is math-oriented and not everyone is going to take joy in studying calculus, physics and logarithms. But before assuming that math isn’t her ‘thing’, examine the reasons why. It could be that 1) she already subconsciously believes that math is too hard, 2) she has yet to encounter that life-impacting teacher (which can make all the difference), or 3) maybe her potential has yet to be tapped, as in the scenario below.
Morgan Vickery is pursuing her computer science degree at UNC Chapel Hill and shares how she unexpectedly discovered her career choice. “I always enjoyed the arts, but when I accidentally enrolled in an Introduction to Programming course, I felt like a whole new world of creation had been opened up to me!”
While it’s true that most STEM fields require a solid math aptitude, there are a multitude of ancillary (and equally exciting) career paths that don’t require a labor force of mathematicians. We need great teachers, business entrepreneurs, tech-savvy creatives, specialists to operate new machinery and devices, just to name a few. Every child – whether they’re a STEM protégé or not - can benefit from exposure to STEM fields and a greater understanding of the possibilities.
3. Assume she won’t be interested in STEM jobs.
A 2016 survey conducted by The Institution of Engineering and Technology in the U.K. found that only seven percent of parents thought that engineering would appeal to their daughter as a career choice. This shocking statistic points to a significant lack of knowledge among parents who do not understand the array of career paths available to engineers. Engineering is not just about ‘building bridges’ as the old school thought process might suggest. Engineering is about exciting and gratifying careers with opportunities to solve some of the world’s biggest problems.
As we look for ways to ignite passion for STEM in younger girls, we must also be cognizant of the need for parents to grow their knowledge as well. That’s why we’ve made all of the research we’ve gathered from women in STEM freely available on STEMGirlsBooks.com. Parents can read stories and hear directly from experts about the unique and highly rewarding career options.
4. Replace her crafts with Legos.
Creativity is an important part of STEM careers. Like puzzles, craft projects develop problem-solving skills and the ability not only to ‘see’ the possibilities but also to bring that vision to life. Legos, building blocks and other such toys are marvelous ways to identify and build STEM skills, but they are not the only clues. What is more important than force-fitting a particular toy into the hands of a child is identifying that child’s natural preferences, nurturing the areas that they tend to gravitate to (including music and art), and understanding the significance and possibilities of each.
Aerospace and Mechanical Engineer, Annie Jones-Wyatt, shares the important role of arts and crafts in the design process of STEM, as it leads to the ability to “draw, sculpt, design and build your own inventions and creations.”
5. Underestimate the job opportunities.
With the push for girls in STEM, some may expect a wave of female STEM enthusiasts to saturate the market within the next decade. The fact is, STEM drives innovation and there will never be a shortage of need for superior problem solving skills that are developed with a STEM-related education.
In a recent interview, Accenture’s Rumman Chowdhury recalled how her love for reading and research unknowingly prepared her to succeed in a career that didn’t even exist when she was a child. Now an emerging leader in data science and artificial intelligence, Rumman’s story is a good reminder of how versatile and crucial these skills are in an ever-changing, technology-driven world. There will always be jobs for talented, ambitious women in STEM to help solve the problems known today, as well as the ones to come.
Encouraging girls in STEM is about tapping into their natural curiosity and keeping their hearts and minds open to pursue what comes naturally to them. Embrace not only building blocks and puzzles, but also her desires to play with dolls, paint messy pictures, explore the backyard, or dream with the happily-ever-after princesses, knowing that these activities do not prevent her from changing the world one day through science, technology, engineering and math.
With more equal representation in the STEM fields, it’s a win-win for everyone: girls have greater opportunities to excel in fields that may otherwise seem off limits and our world benefits from more collective talents driving innovation and the future of possibilities.
Kristi Grigsby is an award-winning marketing consultant and writer with over 20 years of experience growing companies within numerous industries including technology/software, financial services, telecommunications and healthcare. She is also founder of STEM Girls Books, a picture book series designed to introduce young girls to the possibilities of STEM.