Bluemle & Blomstrann: More women scientists isn’t rocket science

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Tiff Bluemle, who is the executive director of Vermont Works for Women, and Jan Blomstrann of Renewable NRG Systems. Both are members of the task force convened to respond to the findings in Enough Said). A version of this piece was first published in the Burlington Free Press.

University of Texas sociologist Catherine Riegle-Crumb recently published a study affirming that decisions girls make about enrolling in higher-level math and science courses are strongly influenced by whether they are exposed to women professionals in those fields.

As her study acknowledges, this is not a new idea. Nor is it news that gender inequality in such fields exacts a significant toll on economic growth. For decades, we have sounded the call to increase women’s numbers in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math).

In 1988, the National Research Council Committee on Women in Science and Engineering warned of the “threat of a serious shortage of scientific personnel” in the years ahead. They recommended “find(ing) ways to employ underrepresented groups more equitably — for reasons of national interest as well as of equality.”

In spite of the attention this subject has received over three decades, far too little has changed. Indeed, women have lost ground in fields where they previously made inroads: women’s participation in civil engineering, for example, declined from 13 percent in 2005 to just over 7 percent in 2009. In 2008, women held only 25 percent of all professional IT-related jobs, an 11 percent drop from a high of 36 percent in 1991.

Given how much these issues have been examined and written about, if Riegle-Crumb’s study is newsworthy it is because it impugns how serious we are about making change.

Increasing the number of women rocket scientists isn’t rocket science. Three strategies, if pursued vigorously and consistently, can make the difference. First, we must expose girls to a full range of careers by putting tools in their hands, employing them as interns, and making connections between classroom learning and the work they might pursue.

Female role models provide undeniable proof that women can succeed as electricians, programmers, mechanical engineers, and environmental scientists. Male and female adult professionals in STEM fields must deliberately reach out: to share their passion for these fields of study, to encourage young talent, and to demystify their work.

 

There are hundreds of initiatives that are making a difference, such as Vermont Works for Women’s Rosie’s Girls, a summer program in which middle-school girls build robots, wield welding torches and wire electrical switches. Instead of reinventing the wheel, we can adapt these models to meet local community needs.

Second, role models are critical. Female role models provide undeniable proof that women can succeed as electricians, programmers, mechanical engineers, and environmental scientists. Male and female adult professionals in STEM fields must deliberately reach out: to share their passion for these fields of study, to encourage young talent, and to demystify their work.

One cannot underestimate the impact of “nudging” or recognition from a mentor, either male or female, from someone established in his or her field, encouraging, supporting and praising a young woman early on in her career.

Third, our efforts directed at girls will have little impact if we do not vigorously address the issue of retention. While women earn 17.5 percent of engineering degrees, they represent only 11 percent of working engineers.

According to Drs. Nadia Fouad and Romila Singh, whose National Science Foundation-funded research involved surveys of nearly 4,000 women engineers, women leave engineering in significant numbers–not to begin families as many had imagined–but because of an unsupportive organizational culture.

The current generation of established, professional women (and men) needs to understand and embrace its responsibility to lift up the generation coming up behind.  It’s not enough to secure a seat at the table for yourself; we must add seats as well.

It has taken decades for us to learn that we will not change the face of the STEM workforce by simply holding open the door. If we’re serious–and we ought to be, for economic reasons if not for equity–we must accept that making change demands individual and collective effort, and funding strategies that work, at levels that can ensure their effectiveness over years.

And we ourselves must commit to getting involved. As Labor Day approaches and we pay tribute to America’s workers, let us ask the young people in our midst, particularly young women, more questions–about what moves and intrigues them; whom they admire; what they struggle to understand; and what limits their ambition.

The past three decades have demonstrated that this is not a problem that parents, schools, or nonprofits can solve alone. This is not a women’s issue. It is about our future, and we ignore it at our peril.

 

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