This article is written in honor of Ada Lovelace Day (October 9), a day founded to remember the first female computer programmer in history and to celebrate the achievements of women in STEM careers (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).
Like many parents, I relished the opportunity to take my three daughters last year to see Hidden Figures, a movie about three African-American women working at NASA who served as the brains behind the launch into orbit of astronaut John Glenn. After a high-spirited and inspiring ending, I remember walking out of the theater and asking my youngest who was four at the time, “So do you think you could become an engineer someday?” “Yes!” she enthusiastically replied. “How about a mathematician?” “Absolutely!” she exclaimed, bouncing on her toes. “How about an astronaut?” To my surprise, she stopped dead in her tracks and said, “No way! Did you see that guy? He almost died in outer space!” I smiled to myself and couldn’t fault her logic. I was just glad that her dreams were not limited by ability, but by desire.
Research shows that girls start doubting their STEM intelligence by age six and continue to lose confidence as classes become less gender-balanced and more intimidating. I’ll never forget my experience of being the only girl in my AP Calculus class; just before the AP test, my professor leaned over and whispered to me in what I think he thought was a generous and supportive statement, “It’s not too late to stop and have the test not show up on your record.” I remember being incensed that he would say this, but just dismissed the moment and tried to focus. I’d like to say that that experience didn’t affect me, but it did. Despite passing the test, I never took another math class and I steered clear of the “hardcore science” classes thereafter. I’ll be darned if my girls have to deal with that.
Having positive female STEM role models in mainstream media is a gift that has been decades in the making. For women of Generation X and even part of the Millennial Generation, female role models in science were few and far between.
As Emily Calandrelli, host and executive producer for Xploration Outer Space and a correspondent for the Netflix show, Bill Nye Saves the World, explains, “As a kid, I could rattle off dozens of male STEM role models that we learned about in school (Edison, Tesla, Einstein, Hawking, Newton, Darwin, Bill Nye, even Jimmy Neutron!), but we weren’t given many female STEM role models (Marie Curie. . . Ms. Frizzle?). That’s not to say they didn’t exist. They simply weren’t given the same platform and attention as their male counterparts.”
Studies show that having more diverse voices in STEM fields is critical for more and better innovation. Yet, today women only comprise 25% of the STEM workforce (and black women only make up 2% of scientists). Despite the high priority placed on STEM in schools, a 2018 study by Microsoft found that efforts to expand female interest and employment in STEM fields are not working as well as intended. The study cited the need for more visibility of female role models, more inclusion of female opinions in the classroom, and more engaging resources for young girls.
Calandrelli, who grew up to get a double masters from MIT and is on her way to becoming one of the leading figures in science communication, is on a mission to change that. She is the author of the Ada Lace chapter book series about an eight-year-old girl who uses her love of science and gadgets to help solve problems. Calandrelli is hopeful that, with more STEM-related books, toys, and movies are emerging on the market that are either gender-neutral or specifically marketed toward women (Goldieblox, Roominate, Yellow Scope, etc.), underlying stereotypes that perpetuate this gap will begin to disappear. Through positive role modeling, she hopes to capture the imagination of young girls to consider becoming a scientist or engineer.
Komal Singh, a program manager in engineering at Google and a mother of two, shares a similar passion. Singh was shocked when her four-year-old daughter announced, “Engineers are boys!” Singh and fellow female Google engineers decided to volunteer their spare time to start changing this dynamic. They wrote Ara the Star Engineer, a first-of-its-kind picture book that features real-life engineering trailblazers from diverse backgrounds with the goal of inspiring girls and children of color to explore STEM. All profits from the book sales will be donated to charities that encourage girls’ and underrepresented groups’ participation in STEM fields.
Xyla Foxlin takes a different approach, leveraging social media to capture the imagination of girls to become “makers.” As an undergrad at Case Western University, Foxlin realized how few girls knew how to use power tools and took matters into her own hands. She co-founded a YouTube channel called Beauty and the Bolt with more than 30 videos focused on showing girls how to solder, drill, laser cut, Dremel and more. Foxlin explains that she strives to be the woman she wishes she had to look up to growing up: passionate and invested in what she does technically, but also maintaining femininity and outside interests like fashion and art. She prides herself in “being the one in a dress at robotic design reviews, and the blur of pink in the machine shop.”
Those working diligently in this field realize that recruiting the next generation of girls into STEM careers has to go beyond pure inspiration and delve into systemic barriers as well. For instance, Calandrelli admits that her STEM classes often felt like an “all-boys club.” She was often one of two or three females in a class of 50 students, which left her feeling less supported than her peers. She explains, “Because most of my professors and bosses were male, it was difficult to receive the same valuable one-on-one mentorship time due to stigmas associated with older men hanging out with younger women. Some male mentors were afraid of what people would think by spending time with a young female student but didn’t think twice spending that same time with a male student.”
In the #MeToo era, these fears are very real—both for men and women who are uncertain how to move forward. “At a minimum though, it’s safe to say that crude comments, belittling jokes and physical harassment need to stop,” Calandrelli exhorts. “But we can do so much more. We have to address each issue separately. We need to encourage male mentors to advise female students and give equal time to all students, regardless of gender identity; we need academic institutions to ensure that all students feel safe by acknowledging and punishing bad behavior; and we need those in the workplace need to acknowledge their own biases that might be affecting hiring, firing and promotion decisions.”
Closing the gender gap in STEM fields requires a coordinated effort of artists, activists, educators, parents, and of course industry leaders. With more transparency and more social support, we can galvanize the next generation of girls to not just dream about a career in STEM, but to become the role models for the books and movies of the future.