GETTING GIRLS INTO STEM EDUCATION
"Women are making an impact on the world," said Sgt. 1st Class Ebonie Washington, an advisor for the Equal Opportunity Office. "In order to keep technology evolving, we have to inspire young girls to want to participate in these fields."
It isn't an easy battle: According to statistics from the U.S. Department of Commerce, less than 30 percent of STEM jobs are held by women, and the numbers grow even worse when you look at specific jobs. In computer science, for example, only 27 percent of jobs are held by women, and only 20 percent of women are graduating with computer science degrees in the first place.
With such a dismal outlook, why should girls care about STEM at all?
For starters, the wage gap is significantly less. Women in STEM fields still make less than their male counterparts, but it's 33 percent more than women in non-science jobs. Women in STEM also play a significant role in boosting the economy and helping the U.S. in terms of global markets.
"Closing the gender gap in STEM degrees will boost the number of Americans in STEM jobs, and that will enhance U.S. innovation while sharpening our global competitiveness," says Dr. Rebecca Blank, Secretary of Commerce.
But what about the job market? Science fields are well-known for being highly competitive, everyone working feverishly with their eye on a Nobel Prize. However, according to Mary Ann Esfandiari, a flight programs director for NASA'S Exploration and Space Communication Division, that shouldn't stop young girls from dreaming of a future in STEM. The opportunities are there, she claimed.
"We need young girls (...) to be interested in science, math, technology and engineering and go into those fields, because we have jobs for them," she said.
She shared her personal history at the event as an example of success over adversity: With no natural talent in science or math, she "learned by the seat of [her] pants" in pursuit of her passion, astronomy. That passion eventually led her to management positions and the director's chair. She credits her parents and helpful mentors for nursing her interests and never making her feel inadequate as a girl in the sciences.
It's that kind of support, says Andrea Kinghorn, a middle school math teacher, that more girls need in STEM education.
They should be encouraged in their ambitions, she told the crowd. They should be taken to museums and indulged when something sparks their imagination, even if that subject is in a traditionally male-dominated field.
"[If] we continue to push students," said Kinghorn, "they'll become more successful."
Studies into K-12 education back her claim. Many girls never develop an interest in STEM education simply because they're never encouraged to; they're steered towards the humanities and soft sciences, subtly dissuaded from STEM exploration by a culture that believes girls aren't good at math and oil under the fingernails is icky. Girls also face discrimination from teachers, even well-intentioned ones, who praise them for being good, quiet, obedient students - not exactly the kind that blossoms into an inquisitive scientist who isn't afraid to ask questions and take risks.
Experts say young girls are especially limited by a lack of female role models in the field.
"The reason there aren't more women computer scientists is because there aren't more women computer scientists," Jocelyn Goldfein, the director of engineering at Facebook. "It's a vicious cycle."
This education gap becomes critical when one looks towards the future of scientific and technological fields. Degrees matter, specifically in STEM fields, where even entry-level jobs can require a thick resume. Mary Ann Esfandiari, the NASA success story, insists that it's absolutely essential for girls to pursue higher education in order to be successful in STEM.
"You should go and finish the degree because you're limited without it," she advised. "Finish school. Do it when you have a chance."
Is it scary, breaking into a male-dominated field? Absolutely. But girls should do it anyway, Esfandiari says. Reach for the stars. Fight stereotypes. Always say yes to opportunity.
"You say yes and then you get scared, then you're sweating bullets, then your hair is on fire, but then you do the job," she said. "You may do it shaky at first but you eventually learn how to do it."
"This," she added, "gives you a sense of confidence for the next opportunity."
If role models are part of a successful recipe for girls in STEM, the ladies of the Women's History Month event have certainly done their part. Now it's up to the rest of the country.