“Usually, girls weren't encouraged to go to college and major in math and science. My high school calculus teacher, Ms. Paz Jensen, made math appealing and motivated me to continue studying it in college.” - Ellen Ochoa

“Usually, girls weren’t encouraged to go to college and major in math and science. My high school calculus teacher, Ms. Paz Jensen, made math appealing and motivated me to continue studying it in college.”              –Dr. Ellen Ochoa; engineer, former astronaut, and current Director of the Johnson Space Center 

Quick, read this phrase and tell me what immediately springs to mind:

“Women in STEM.”

Where did your brain go?  Unless you’ve been living under a rock, I doubt your first thought was “women are well-represented in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines and professions, not to mention the fact that they hold leadership positions in these fields and are earning as much as men in these careers.  Nope, nothing amiss here!”  You probably got that stomach lurch or brain flash that indicated the controversy and contention behind this topic.  The fact that we need to talk specifically about “women” in STEM, and not just people in STEM or STEM careers generally, tells you that we’re dealing with thorny issues about sex, gender and the debate over whether the under-representation of women in STEM is something we should worry about or just something that is the way it is, shrug.  In case you haven’t guessed, you can count me among the former group, not the latter.

Many of us, especially the Boomers among us, have a story or two about a person, male or female, who has openly and quite unabashedly asserted that girls and women are simply wired differently than their male counterparts, making them ill-suited for careers in the hard sciences.  Hell, some folks believe, based on whatever pseudo-science they encounter on the internet or unearth from the recesses of their own shallow minds, that women are underrepresented in STEM because they simply don’t want those kinds of careers.  Because women have vaginas, and that’s where babies come from, duh.

So I want to talk a bit about a conversation I had with my father recently.  I feel a bit awful that he’s getting wrapped up into this blog post, especially one with “sexism” in the title.  Let me be clear:  my father raised four girls (no boys), and has been nothing but supportive of me and my sisters in anything and everything we’ve ever wanted to dream or accomplish.  And obviously he’s of the same mindset with my two daughters.

My older daughter is almost six years old and has already stated that math and science are her favorite subjects right now.  I wouldn’t be surprised if she said reading and writing were her favorite parts of school — she excels academically, period, and I couldn’t be more grateful or proud.  She will certainly hone her preferences and talents over time, but right now, the kid can do about anything you could expect from a child at her age and grade level.

In a few years, my daughter will have the opportunity to enroll in a late elementary/middle school program with a unique focus on STEM.  I mentioned this to my father, and he remarked:

“Sure … if that’s what she wants.”

The reason this comment bothered me wasn’t clear in the moment.  Consider the plain meaning of this remark in any generic context:  a child should be able to choose whatever it is she wants to do.  It’s up to her!  The power of choice!  This is a good thing, no?

Well, no, actually.

If at any point one of my daughters come to me and say they want to focus their studies on the humanities, like I did, I wouldn’t disagree and steer them toward STEM instead just because of some vague notion like “the patriarchy!”  For what it’s worth, I’m not that kind of feminist — although I do indeed hold dear some very feminist values with which not everyone in my little corner of the world agrees.

But consider this:  STEM careers are exciting and rewarding for many professionals and students who hope to enter these competitive fields at some point in their young lives.  They are also grueling, can be cutthroat in terms of the competition, and many of the best and brightest end up dropping out of these programs despite their best efforts and intentions.  When a young person has an opportunity to start preparing to enter these professions early in her academic life, she is that much closer to making a successful STEM career a viable option.  And if any student gives it a try and decides it’s not for him or her, that’s fine too.  But without being exposed to STEM as an option — indeed, one of many — early on, how is a child going to know whether it’s right for her?

I can’t help but feel that if I had a son and not a daughter, and I commented that he’d have the opportunity to enroll in a STEM-focused school in a few years, the remarks would sound more like this:

“Oh wow, that’s great!”

“That will be good for him because he loves math now, right?”

“What a great opportunity, that would be wonderful if he chooses to pursue a STEM career someday.”

And yes, I know, there are many of us out there who would utter these same comments about any girl in the same position.  But honestly, can you imagine any well-meaning grandparent or other relative or friend who would react by questioning whether a young boy would actually “want” to focus his studies on STEM someday?  When we caution a young girl that she should only study for a STEM career if she “wants” to, here’s what I suspect she hears:

“Math is really hard!”

“There aren’t a lot of women in STEM, and the ones who make it deal with sexism everyday.”

“It’s great that you can try STEM, but you know, you may not like it.”

“Science is fun for young kids, but it gets harder in the older grades.”

A soon-to-be first grader, even one like mine who went through two years of full-day academic preschool before entering kindergarten, has no idea what she really wants for her future, even only three years out, let alone in terms of her career.  But here’s the thing:  if I don’t influence her one way or another, someone or something else will.  And this is where I think my dad was missing the point of not just making these opportunities available to children, but also promoting them actively.  For years girls were told, expressly but especially implicitly, that women just don’t belong in science, technology, mathematics and engineering.  It has been explained to us and subtly reinforced that we’re just not good in math, or that women are naturally drawn to the “soft sciences” and humanities because of our gentle nature, or that women just don’t want to undergo the rigorous demands of a STEM career or entrepreneurship or business leadership, because we tend to focus on child-rearing at the stage in life when these demands reach their peak.  And when that does happen to be true for some of us in some of these situations, the pundits jump on this and say all”.

In the fourth grade, my class was able to sign up for band and choose an instrument to learn.  I chose the flute.  From what I remember, at the time I honestly wanted to play the flute.  It just so happened that the flute section was solidly female in its makeup.  I never said to myself or to anyone else that the reason I wanted to play the flute was because that’s what most of the girls did.  I don’t think I would have believed it either, if someone had suggested that was the reason.  But I also noticed how almost all of the saxophone players were boys.  There was one girl, maybe two, who played the sax.  But for some reason, any females in that section seemed … different.  Maybe they had their reasons for wanting to “play with the boys” as it were.  I didn’t think I belonged there … but I also didn’t give it much thought.  It wasn’t until later, long after dropping the flute altogether, that I considered what an interesting instrument the saxophone is.  It’s a reed instrument that makes a cool sound.  Only a handful of students, mostly boys, pursued it and got really good at it.  There were lots of solo opportunities for the saxophone players.  I don’t regret not playing the sax, but it certainly did not occur to me until much later that there was an opportunity for me there too.

Listen, our girls are not going to understand that they belong anywhere they want to be unless they see us owning it in these spaces.  Like I said above, I’m not in favor of girls and women pursuing STEM just to prove a point.  But with that said — does any woman enter STEM just to prove she can do it?  I think not.  It’s time to stop treating the girls who play the saxophone like the outliers who want to play with the boys.  It’s time to treat our girls like they belong, because simply put, they just do.

Image via WikiMedia Commons (public domain)