Getting More Women in STEM

With the dismal diversity numbers coming out of Google, Facebook, and other technology companies in the news recently, there has been much talk about how to get more women into science, technology and engineering disciplines.

As a woman who is in a male-dominated technical field, I have some thoughts on this.  I was the only female in my graduating class, and the winner of the Best Portfolio award. (own horn, toot toot!)  I work at an engineering firm.  I’m an expert user of a lot of software, I troubleshoot my own computer issues, and I know a few scripting languages and computer programming basics.  I’m not intimidated by math or science or computers.

But before I tell you my ideas, let me tell you what is NOT the way.  PLEASE, for the love of God, do not try to get women into STEM by making it “girly”.  Please, do not make it pink.  Do not put glitter and flowers on it.  Do not make it cute or gossipy.  Please do not make it “sexy” to like math and science.

We need to get girls interested in math and science the exact same way we get boys interested, by making it interesting and giving them inspiring examples of other girls and women who have done it.  Ask a man why he got into an engineering field and his answer will not be “because I am a man and it was a masculine thing to do.”  No, it will likely be “because I was intrigued by _____.” or “My favorite sci fi movie featured a little boy hero and I wanted to be just like him” or “I wanted to build _____ or design better _____”

When I was a kid, I was already into nerdy things.  I loved sci fi, both reading and movies.  I loved fantasy.  I loved video games.  I loved building things with legos.  Looking back though, I notice that all of those movies and books I loved, they ALL had a male protagonist.  In most cases there were no girls or women at all except as the love interest.  The girl character existed only as an object of the boy character’s desire.  She usually had no lines.  Flight of the Navigator, The Never-Ending Story, The Last Starfighter, etc.

My favorite books, The Lord of the Rings series, had a few minor two dimensional female characters.  So many of my favorite books followed that pattern.  It just seemed normal to me that women were rarely featured.  I never questioned it until much later.

Because of my interests I did not fit in.  I would never be popular.  Girls teased me and boys passed me over for girls who were pretty and giggled a lot.  Being nerdy was never cool, but being a nerdy girl made me one of a kind.  I was an oddity.

We need movies and books that make science and technology intriguing to little girls and show little girls as the HEROS not the love interest.  Show me a little girl winning the space battle or saving the world with a magic video game.

We also need video games that allow girls to feel like they are a part of the world of technology.  Not pink flowers and ponies, science fiction type puzzle games with smart female protagonists, and they don’t need to be dressed like they’re going to work at the strip club either.

We need books with female protagonists solving technology and science issues.

We need TV shows that show women being scientists and starfleet captains.  Thank goodness for Captain Janeway.  MORE please.

We need teachers who are trained to encourage boys and girls equally in math.  I experienced sexism in my schooling.  It came in subtle and overt ways.  I can see why other girls were driven away from the path of math and science, but for me it egged me on.  I’m just a defiant type of person, but we can’t expect most people to buck their social role.  Whether it was teachers who acted surprised at how well I performed at math and science or teachers who wouldn’t call on a girl in their classes, it was not encouragement.

Want more women in STEM careers?  Get girls interested in it.  Encourage curiosity.  Let them know they can do it.  Give them examples of other girls doing it.  Don’t act surprised when a girl is good at math.  

We don’t need to put pink stickers on it.