Photo credit: Jane Goodall Institute
In one of my earliest memories, I’m sitting on the back porch of our little house in San Jose, California, conducting science experiments. These ‘experiments’ involved an array of Tupperware cups containing various amounts of muddy water that I would dump from one to the other. It was what my mom called a mess. But in my mind, it was science! As a little girl I was fascinated by the idea of understanding how things work, and using that knowledge to create something new and wonderful.
Fast forward about ten years to when I was a freshman in high school. One morning I opened up my biology textbook to the next chapter we were to study and was confronted by the beautifully simple, yet intricately designed double helix that is the DNA strand. It was love at first sight! From that time on, I knew that I wanted a career working with DNA and genetics, and all of my curiosity about science and the way things worked from the time I was a little girl, seemed to fit perfectly with that goal.
My dreams were not unlike many of the dreams of today’s young girls. A majority of girls in the United States show enthusiasm for STEM (science, technology, math and engineering) subjects at a young age. Unfortunately, this interest and enthusiasm wanes over time. Only 18-20% of college engineering students are women, and this gender disparity continues into the workforce, with women holding only 13% of engineering and 25% of computer and math roles.
Disturbing statistics, all of them. And they make me wonder why I was lucky enough to avoid this trend. Why was I successfully able to navigate from that little girl mixing muddy water on her back porch, to that high school student awed by the DNA strand, to a scientist and entrepreneur who has dedicated her career to educating and innovating around DNA?
Well, I had involved parents and teachers, which is critically important. A study by Microsoft found that girls who had encouraging parents and teachers were more likely to be interested in STEM subjects. But I also had a female STEM role model – my mom. My mom is a software engineer, and as a young girl I witnessed her achieve success in a career that was (and still is) disproportionately weighted towards males. This had a profound impact on me and my future career goals. The Microsoft research underscores the importance of female STEM mentors: girls who personally know a woman in STEM are 50% more likely to understand how to pursue a career in STEM.
The empowering thing about these statistics and research is that they show that you and I, as individuals, can make a difference. By encouraging the young girls we know (our daughters, our nieces, our neighbors) to ask questions about the world we live in, to look for creative solutions to problems, and to experiment with new ideas, we can help to provide an environment that fosters their interest in STEM. By teaching both young boys and girls that gender stereotypes in STEM are not relevant, we can change the future paradigm. Finally, if you are a woman in a STEM field, you can have a tremendous impact in a young girl’s life by being a mentor. The FabFems Project, led by the National Girls Collaborative Project, is an international directory for which you can sign up to be a role model, and then be matched to young women looking for mentors.
I am so fortunate that I got the encouragement and support I needed to pursue a career in STEM, so that girl playing with that muddy water could achieve her dreams. Now it’s time for me to pass it on.