Society’s subtle and not so subtle messages
There are many obstacles that discourage girls and students of color from pursuing STEM fields in college. The Girl Scout Research Institute surveyed high school girls about their interest in STEM fields. They found that girls interested in STEM face outdated stereotypes about math and science, less support and exposure, and subtle (or not so subtle) messages from society. Everyday kids receive 100s or 1000s of messages from their parents/family, teachers, toys, and society (even shut-ins go online). Parents who want to encourage their daughters in math and science have their work cut out for them!
Unfortunately, kids receive and interpret these signals at a very young age. Much of my motivation to become more active in STEM outreach was due to a single line by an 8-year old girl in Philadelphia (she is now about to graduate high school). When I told her that I was an engineer in graduate school, she gave me a funny face and said "That’s a boys job!". She really emphasized ‘boys’; to let me know that there was something quite off about what I just told her. That was the beginning of an exciting relationship with my Little Sister. But, how in the world did she come to that conclusion by 8?!
A couple weeks ago I was enjoying brunch in Downtown Oakland with my partner, Nate, when we noticed a dad eating with his two young kids (a boy and a girl – probably a year apart and both likely in primary school). I couldn’t help but eavesdrop on their conversation, because I heard him talking about algebra. That’s awesome!
The father was really excited about what he was teaching, but when I looked over I noticed that he had all of his attention focused on his son. He didn’t noticed that his daughter was looking over to see what was going on as well. Eventually, the daughtor gave up on trying to be noticed and turned her attention to the artwork on the wall. This crushed me inside, and I thought maybe I was being overly sensitive.
When I looked back over to Nate, he said, "Did you see that? He’s only talking to his son." Empathizing with the daughter is not necessarily something that he would have done when we first started dating in college (many many years ago), but gender biases is something that Nate has become more aware of after seeing me work in a male-dominated field. A warning to men dating women in STEM — you may find yourself going from blissfully unaware to an egalitarian!
I’ve had a couple of male mentors during my short career thus far… It’s clear to me that without their support, improving diversity (be it gender or racial diversity) in STEM would be truly impossible.