STEM the Tide of Talent Lost

I don’t know how much press Jenny Jones’s article entitled Closing the Gender Gap in the July issue of Civil Engineering received, but I want to do my part. As I read through her examination of the new report about the critical factors that keep women from pursuing and succeeding in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), it rang too true.

I won’t summarize the article for you here – it’s too good and too significant to summarize. (http://civil-engineering.asce.org/link/ce/2010/jul/62?s=0). It sure got me thinking about how much work there is to do on the part of girls, women, parents, schools, media, teachers, professors, companies, bosses – the Gender Gap may be closing but it’s by inches, not leaps.

We have such a need today for people to go into and excel in the STEM fields. But I read and learned that if you don’t think you can learn, you probably won’t try. If your girl mind-set is fixed and you believe you don’t have the chops to master math or chemistry, then you don’t think practice will help. The power of positive expectations can move you forward, but the power of negative expectations may have you running for the classroom door.

By the time girls have thought about their potential, they get hit with the stereotypes about girls and femininity. Test results are gender neutral but teachers and parents may not be. While boys are girls are about equal in math and science ability, boys have better spatial relation/visualization skills – comes from all that time with blocks, and Lego’s and Connects and Erector Sets. I spent a lot of extra time creating structures (rather than learning arithmetic) using Cuisenaire Rods, which may explain why I did so well in math, until –

I ran into a math teacher who didn’t like me; I didn’t like the teacher; the teacher wasn’t a very good teacher and I cut a lot of classes. How do I know it wasn’t me? I passed with flying colors when I took it from a terrific teacher in summer school. Women may come to enjoy STEM classes over time, whereas men often have an intense interest and ability. If you are a teacher, who are you going to gravitate to and encourage? My money is on the student who already loves what you loves and is easier to teach because of their interest. It’s EASY to teach people who want to learn. It’s harder when you have to figure out how to motivate.

Even findings from female faculty members indicate that it’s tough being a STEM woman. I cringed reading about the study that found that women in “masculine” (STEM) fields were considered EITHER likable or competent, but not both! In spite of tests that prove that this is not the case, the assumption persists. How many times have women gotten the message, either overtly or covertly, that you can’t be pretty and smart (or pretty and funny, pretty and overweight). There is a lack of female role models and mentors and many women report a lack of support when trying to raiase a child while on the tenure track.

It’s not all doom and gloom. There are folks who are getting the word out that girls and women who have an interest in the STEM fields should have equal access to them. Teachers are learning about how to motivate ALL students. Parents are learning about how to advocate for their children in the classroom and helping their kids learn how to be advocates for themselves. Organizations are getting that integrating home and work are important to ALL employees, not just the female ones.

Granted, I opted out of STEM classes as soon as I could. I loved English class and the Arts too, and think I made a pretty good choice for my interests, talents, and skills when I obtained my Masters Degree in Counseling. But it makes me wonder what ELSE I could have done, and how things might have been different, had I thought success was possible in Math and Science.

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