Solving the gender gap in STEM involves encouraging girls to pursue their interests, providing excellent role models, and approaching the issue form another perspective. Sara Sakowitz relates her experiences for The Washington Post in this article written from the perspective of a young female engineer.
The woman standing in front of us turned around to face me. “Are you the cheerleaders?” she beamed. I glanced at my all-girls robotics team with a look of disbelief. As their proud captain, I’ve spent hundreds of hours working with them to build and program a fully-functional robot. Walking into the massive competition arena, I had tuned out the screaming fans and blasting music, focusing on the engineering challenges at hand. But the last thing I ever thought would happen was that my group of twelve girls who routinely wire electronics, design complicated mechanical systems, and write detailed programs would be mistaken for another school’s dance team.
As famed astrophysicist Meg Urry wrote in her Feb. 2005 article in The Post, “discrimination isn’t a thunderbolt, it isn’t an abrupt slap in the face. It’s the slow drumbeat of being unappreciated, feeling uncomfortable, and encountering roadblocks along the path to success.” My science research defines me. Reading journal articles and learning new techniques almost every day, I feel at home in the laboratory. But that isn’t the case for most girls in science and engineering; somewhere along the path to a PhD, girls fall off the scientific bandwagon.
The fact that women are missing from STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields is not a secret. But as a teenage scientist deeply involved in science and engineering while still in high school, I see the problem as a straightforward one: I believe that in their earliest years, girls lose their spark—they succumb to societal hurdles and mental obstacles that have existed for as long as they can remember. Instead of imaginary genetic weaknesses, girls battle false portrayals of female scientists in the media and fight against the unconscious, unspoken rule that only men belong as the leaders of the world.
One major problem, gender stereotypes, appears in the most mundane magazines, television programs, or music tracks. In toy stores, girls are relegated to the “pink aisle” with dolls and pretend ovens while boys wander into the “manly aisle” with train sets and toy cars. As a child, I loved to play with Legos, spending hours fitting the pieces together to build any structure I imagined. I adored dolls, but I could never find one that exactly mirrored my enthusiasm for science and engineering.
Girls play a critical role in the future of innovation and have the potential to become leaders in STEM fields. I have spent thousands of hours at the laboratory because my love and enthusiasm for my research made me value the long days and hard work. I have an incredible support team of family, friends, and mentors who encourage me to continue even on my hardest days. But many girls don’t have the same opportunities and reject the understated female scientist for the supposedly more glamorous fashion model. Olympic athletes have the nation behind them, but I’ve found that teenage scientists are left to forge their own paths. Science and engineering deserve to be supported just as much as any sport.
When I looked around the arena at my robotics competition, I counted only three other girls out of over a thousand high school students working on their teams’ robots. Glancing at the bleachers, I watched girls parading as mascots, girls cheering for their teams, and girls dancing in the stands. But I didn’t see girls on the competition floor. Maybe in the next few years that gender balance will change, and the timid girls in the bleachers will be replaced by fearless women who are undaunted by society’s confining expectations. Someday, my all-girls team will not be the exception to the unspoken rule, but until then, we have to keep breaking it.
Sakowitz, 17, is a finalist in the Intel Science Talent Search 2014. She is a senior at the Brearley School in New York City.