Exploring the topic of STEM Education along with Harris-Perry were Dr. Althea Maybank, a pediatrician who co-founded the Artemis Medical Society to encourage women of color to join the medical profession; Ana Maria Chavez, CEO of the Girl Scouts of America; Danielle Moodie-Mills, director of education advocacy for the National Wildlife Federation; and Christianne Corbett, research associate at the Association of American University Women and coauthor of "Why So Few?" a book about women in STEM-related fields.
Maybank noted that only 3 percent of the physician workforce is African-American and only 1.9 percent of physicians are African-American women. She and others on the panel are big fans of the message communicated by the "Doc McStuffins" Disney Junior TV show, which features an animated African-American girl who plays doctor to her stuffed animals and toys.
Chavez discussed the role that the Girl Scouts organization has played over the past century in promoting an interest in STEM among girls, dating back to early badges in aviation and welding, which were high technology 100 years ago. Today, the GSA promotes STEM education for its members, and Chavez noted that the organization's cookie program is larger than any other entrepreneurial program for girls in the United States.
Asked about resources to nurture and encourage girls to pursue STEM education and STEM-related careers, Corbett commented that the AAUW's research has revealed that culture and environment play a big role in the routes that women follow in pursuit of their careers. Sadly, she noted that stereotypes regarding the abilities of girls and women in STEM fields continue to persist in American society, and these stereotypes have a psychological impact that deters many girls from pursuing STEM education and related careers. She cited a study that demonstrated that among girls and boys with the same abilities in STEM subjects, girls consistently self-assessed their abilities lower than boys did while simultaneously holding themselves to a higher standard.
Moodie-Mills explained that her own personal motto is, "Be visible; be fabulous." She and Harris-Perry joked about the stereotype that African-Americans are not outdoorsy and the surprised looks that she has gotten when meeting people as a representative of the NWF. By being both visible and fabulous, women like Moodie-Mills can help dispel stereotypes about what girls can and cannot achieve.
Referring to First Lady Michelle Obama's comments in 2011 regarding the importance of encouraging girls to pursue STEM careers, Harris-Perry and her panelists agreed on how crucial it is for girls to receive positive, encouraging messages about their ability to pursue any field of study and any career, particularly those in STEM areas, which have been traditionally dominated by men. In particular, Chavez noted that the messages girls get from their fathers and other male role models play an enormous part in how girls think about themselves and their abilities in STEM subjects.
Corbett concurred, citing research that cultivating a "growth mindset" -- the idea that people are not born with a fixed amount of intelligence but rather can continue to grow and learn throughout their lives -- helps protect girls from being negatively influenced by stereotypes about their abilities in science and math. In addition, she stressed the importance of praising children for their efforts rather than for their results; in other words, recognizing the amount of effort that went into a difficult project is provides more encouragement than praising a good grade that took little effort.
It's heartening to see the conversation about STEM education for girls continuing at high levels among well-respected women, and the message for parents, educators and others who work with children is clear: If we invest in programs that encourage girls to pursue STEM education and careers in STEM fields, provide role models showing that girls can excel in all fields, and refrain from stereotyping certain academic subjects and careers as being better for men or better for women, we will see more girls studying those subjects and entering those fields.
Why is this so important? The United States, long a leader in technology and innovation, has fallen behind many other countries in these areas in recent decades. One reason for this decline may be that so many of our talented young people don't believe they are smart enough or capable enough to succeed in STEM-related careers, whereas such stereotypes are less entrenched in the countries that are emerging as technology leaders.
Overcoming ingrained biases is hard, but the more American women enter and excel in science and technology careers, the less strength stereotypes will have. Eventually, with continued effort, we can hope to reach the tipping point where those fields are gender-balanced. Then, girls will see with their own eyes that they can do anything they set their sights on. Only then will the United States be able to reach its full potential in the world of technology and science.