Thursday, May 3, 2012

Guest Post: Julia Kamenetzky on Girls Like STEM! How can we translate that interest into a career?

Julia Kamenetzky is an NSF Graduate Research Fellow at the University of Colorado at Boulder.  Her research focuses on extragalactic submillimeter spectroscopy with Z-Spec and Herschel.  She is active in CU’s Women in Astronomy group and is the recent winner of the CU Boulder Graduate School’s Dorothy Martin Doctoral Student Award for a student active in women’s issues.

Girls Like STEM!  How can we translate that interest into a career?

When discussing the representation of women in STEM fields, it’s important to ask: are girls even interested in science?  Proponents of gender essentialism, the belief that men and women are fundamentally different, might assume that women are underrepresented in STEM because they simply aren’t interested.  Why should we push people into careers that don’t interest them?  Or perhaps even worse, why should we push people into careers that they aren’t “good” at?

Recent research, however, has shown the opposite to be true.  Girls are just as good as math; the rapid increase in the ratio of girls to boys receiving top scores on the math SAT shows that there was nothing biological about test scores, and high school girls perform just as well in math and science in school (AAUW).  This idea is nothing new, especially to the readers of this blog.  I’ve instead chosen to focus this post about the first question: are girls interested in science?  The answer is yes!  More importantly for the readers of this blog, how can we use these findings to change the way we approach outreach and education?

Our Women in Astronomy group at CU Boulder recently discussed the new report from the Girl Scouts Research Institute entitled Generation STEM: What Girls Say about Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math.  The findings were encouraging: 74% of high school girls surveyed were interested in STEM fields.  Those girls that expressed interest (called “STEM girls” as compared to “non-STEM girls” by the report) are likely to be confident, hard-working, high-achievers with supportive adult networks.  If interest is very high, and these young students seem to have “what it takes” for a successful scientific career, why do so many fewer women college students major in STEM than men?  81% of STEM girls in the study are interested in pursuing a career in STEM, but only 13% consider it their first choice.  There are a few reasons for this discrepancy:

  • Many of the STEM girls have not only high grades in STEM fields, but in every academic subject.  Their talents, interests, and skills are varied and numerous.  Of course, I am extremely supportive of a confident, well-rounded generation of young people, but I recognize this is one reason why not all of these students will go into STEM careers.  
  • Unfortunately, even high school girls perceive social barriers to pursuing STEM careers.  47% of the girls said they would feel uncomfortable being the only girl in a group or class, and 57% said that in a STEM career, “they’d have to work harder than a man just to be taken seriously.”

Memories are tricky things, but I am not sure I had that level of insight when I was a high school student.  Given these two factors, why would a young girl choose a career where they expect negative consequences such as isolation and bias, when they have many other skills and talents that they could develop professionally?  Additionally, the study showed that most girls want a career where they are making a difference in people’s lives; although STEM can definitely offer those opportunities in amazing ways, that is not a factor that is often emphasized when talking about STEM careers.

Racial and ethnic minorities are extremely underrepresented in astronomy and STEM in general; the report “found that African American and Hispanic girls say that they have just as much interest in STEM as Caucasian girls, but they have had less exposure to STEM, less adult support [parents and teachers] for pursuing STEM fields, lower academic achievement, and greater awareness of gender barriers in STEM professions.”  The last point speaks to the importance of intersectionality, which was just recently highlighted by guest blogger Nick Murphy.  Far more of these girls indicated worries about sexual harassment, hiring bias, and equal treatment than the Caucasian girls in the study.  Girls that have less exposure to adults in STEM careers can benefit even more profoundly from the involvement I suggest below.

This study highlights, first and foremost, the importance of listening to what young people have to say.  Scientists, as data-driven people, can use this information to understand where we can have the most impact with the next generation, and the report lists a variety of implications and recommendations.  The main message that I took away from this report is that girls are interested in the challenge, creativity, and problem-solving aspects of STEM fields.  Showing that science “is cool” is not so much the barrier anymore; the challenge now is to translate that interest into the real possibility of a career.  

I encourage outreach to share your research with students, but also take some time to discuss what it’s like to be a scientist.  Students may be interested in hearing about your other interests in addition to science, potential financial rewards with a STEM degree, and how you help people in your career.  Even scientific research that doesn’t directly solve problems here on Earth is probably conducted by a researcher that also teaches and mentors others, which is a valuable contribution that should not be overlooked.  Talking about science as a career, and not just a general field of cool stuff, can make it more of a reality in the minds of young people; they can start to envision themselves in your role someday.  When discussing difficulties and obstacles to overcome, be honest (especially if the students specifically ask about it), but not negative.  This can be a tricky balance to strike; the Techbridge program has put together an excellent resource guide for how to be a role model with K-12 students that may help.

To engage in this type of outreach, if you’re not sure where to start, try asking around.  Some universities and research facilities might have a dedicated outreach office that you could contact.  To start, think low commitment, like being a guest speaker in an after-school program.  I recently asked about this in the Education department at our university, because I had read some research in this field from one particular professor, and she connected me with a great after-school program (Cool Girls Science and Art Club) that I would have never found otherwise.  Asking around might especially help connect you with areas with a underserved population, where the students could especially gain from interacting with a real life scientist.  The aforementioned resource guide also has ideas for how to get involved.

By simply reaching out and sharing our stories, we can work to bridge the gap between young girls’ (and boys’) interest in STEM to their successful careers.  This new report demonstrated that the interest is there, and the paths to overcome the remaining obstacles can be cleared if we choose to help out.