When I was in high school, a woman math teacher became a critical role model to me; she saw that I had a special interest in math, inspired me to pursue it, and encouraged me to go even further and try a mechanical engineering class in college. Once at Stanford, I was often only one of a handful of women in my engineering classes that were usually comprised of more than 40 students. I was fortunate to have had that math teacher who saw potential and encouraged me; but not all girls with a passion for science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) receive that kind of support.
According to the National Science Foundation, of all the world’s engineers, 87% are male and 13% are female. Today, fewer women are graduating with degrees in computer science than in the 1980s, even though women today earn 57% of all undergraduate degrees. In fact, girls often lose interest in or stop pursuing STEM subjects as early as 8 years old.
As part of my goal to change these statistics, I founded GoldieBlox – a company dedicated to inspiring more girls at young ages to want to become engineers. Through an interactive book + construction toy, GoldieBlox taps into girls’ strong verbal skills and bolsters confidence in spatial skills. I know that this new type of toy is just one step in the right direction – there is more we need to do.
That’s why I was so pleased to join Chelsea Clinton, Kari Byron, co-host of Discovery Channel’s Mythbusters, and Danielle Feinberg, Director of Photography at Pixar Animation Studios, earlier this week in Denver, Colorado, for a No Ceilings conversation which focused on the challenges that women and girls face every day in participating in STEM fields. The event brought together both girls interested in STEM as well as impressive women who had followed their interests to pursue STEM careers in a diversity of fields. While I found the entire conversation inspiring, below are some of my highlights.
STEM Stories: Successes and Struggles
The conversation highlighted ways in which we can work together to help the next generation of women reach their full potential. Kari, Danielle, Chelsea, and I reflected on the value and importance of a STEM education and audience members – a mix of young girls who are interested in STEM as well as women who are in STEM careers – shared their personal experiences, achievements, and challenges.
Many girls spoke about how often they find themselves in the minority in STEM classes and activities, and discussed their struggles against criticism, social pressures from their peers, and feeling lonely. To help address this, it is so important that we engage support networks to give one another the strength and support in the face of challenges. There are terrific local and national networks, such as conversation participants NCWIT, already in place.
A young girl from the audience shared a story about how a teacher had encouraged her to continue with science classes and helped her to discover a passion and talent for laboratory work, which is now fueling her dreams and goals. Chelsea reflected on her own life, and discussed how an afterschool program at her public school in Little Rock was instrumental in demonstrating to young girls the many diverse career paths that can come from a STEM education.
When the audience was asked what words characterize a woman in STEM, one woman said, curiosity: “You don’t have to be brilliant to engage in STEM but you have to be curious.” I found this word so important because when I became interested in STEM, my grades actually dropped, and I worried often that I was not smart enough. What I realized and what got me through was that it was not about being a genius but about finding a passion and pursuing it – and being committed to getting through it. Once I was able to solve that math problem or write that code, my self-confidence grew. It was my curiosity to try and passion to keep pursuing that pushed me forward. STEM is about curiosity: asking why, and not already knowing the answer.
The Future: Girls in STEM
I believe it is up to all of us to encourage the girls we know to be confident, believe in themselves, and pursue whichever passion they choose. I hope that by sharing my own STEM story, I can help inspire more girls to help pursue their own.