As parents in the Bay Area in 2015, we can all pretty much agree that we want our children to grow up to be successful in whatever field they choose, regardless of their gender. Our daughters and sons alike, in our hearts and hopes, will grow up sharing their gifts with the world and be compensated well enough to support themselves and their families and live great lives.

We tell our youth that they can go into any career that inspires them, and can grow up to be in any profession they are willing to put their minds and hearts into. Right? And especially so in the jobs where there is the most amount of money: science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). The issue that many educators, parents and scholarly researchers are noticing is that girls often lose their confidence when they approach a particularly hard STEM subject as they move into the upper grades at school.

Ideally, we want to encourage our girls to strive towards success in these subjects and develop genuine interest in STEM. Still, there are systemic issues in the roots of these male-dominated fields, and women with the same qualifications as men are less likely to be hired or retained in the same jobs as men. These stereotypes are pervasive and have a huge effect on how the world turns. When we put half the population of the working world into a box of stereotypes, and lock women out of STEM fields, we lock our whole culture out of an opportunity to receive the possible “novel solutions that diverse participation brings.”

Where are all the lady computer programmers at?

You might say that, historically, there have been fewer women interested in STEM. You may believe that these are more male-driven industries, and therefore, women were absent from these fields because they were more likely to find themselves in the helping professions because that is in their wiring…

In fact, women are brilliant in STEM careers, and have made a significant impact in these fields. Still, these are fields that few females inhabit in the vast landscape of possible career paths, and many researchers are saying that the beginning of this disparity lies in how we speak to our daughters and the stereotypes that are embedded in our society about girls and STEM.

An example of a brilliant woman in a STEM career: Margaret Hamilton, the computer scientist and systems engineer who worked on the Apollo Project and helped take humanity to the moon in 1969.

Here she is standing next to her mountain of code that she wrote by hand for the on-board flight software for the Apollo 11 mission.

Furthermore, it begins with the toys that we give to our girls, how we encourage them to create and explore in nature, and how we socialize them as young ladies. Telling one’s daughter that she is beautiful more often than brilliant and constantly praising her for prettiness instead of celebrating her gifts of intelligence and work-ethic is bound to send the message that her beauty is what will get her far in life. Whereas expressing interest in her ideas and excitement about the things she is learning in school, observing in the natural world, or creating with tools and skills in STEM studies — this will encourage her to become more engaged in her education that could lead her to a fruitful career in which she can make a significant impact in the world. 

OUR LANGUAGE MAKES A DIFFERENCE.

Encouraging girls to pursue their studies in science, technology, engineering, and math requires educators, parents, and folks who work with children to become conscious of how we speak to our girls. Saying: “Don’t get your clothes dirty,” or “Let the boys use the tools,” are subtle ways we discourage girls from STEM.

In order to change the way we speak to our girls, we need to get real about the ways in which we have been socialized to think of what women’s roles are in the workforce. It isn’t so strange to imagine a woman in the medical field, as there is a sense of nurturing and helping in this profession. We are not so old-school that we cannot see women in a professional light, but if we look at the number of women in hard science courses and in engineering programs, the numbers are still disparaging. This isn’t for lack of talent in these fields, as evidenced by the Margaret Hamiltons of the world.

The key is in early education, in the toys and activities that we give our children; particularly, young girls, and how we speak to girls. When your daughter or student shows interest in science and math activities, encourage her genius. Even if it means she is making a mess and getting really curious about a project, encourage her brilliance.

A recent speech by a top woman scientist in the UK highlighted this point in regards to the strangeness of socialization and the passivity trained into girls when they are given a Barbie Doll instead of a set of LEGOs.

This gender imbalance may seem archaic to those of us in the progressive Bay Area of California, as it did to this woman in the UK who is ready for it all to change. But there is something about the innate drives in boys and girls to go towards particular toys that are worth questioning in this entire inquiry so that we can remain curious, instead of swinging the pendulum between dogmas, stigmas, and stereotypes and getting stuck in our own conundrum.

The conundrum is this: How can we engage young female students in STEM programs so that they have a chance in this changing world to get into the technology fields, and careers that are going to serve them, their families, and keep a balance in the creation of our next iteration of society? We hope to answer some of these questions in PART 2 of this series, and would love to keep this discussion open, so let us know what you think in the comments below. 

The future is in the hands of the young people, and HALF of them are girls. Let’s give them a chance they haven’t had to influence the footprint of our species in these powerful fields that shape our world.

We’re curious about your thoughts about STEM and stereotypes. Please post in the comments or write to us your opinions, ideas, and breakthroughs on this subject. Email: b4ksf.office@gmail.com.