By Staci Thomas, P.E.
Staci Thomas is a licensed professional engineer who works part time and home educates her four daughters.
Recently, The New York Times ran a story about a report titled “Why So Few?” The report, released by the American Association of University Women, summarized the extensive research on women in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields.
The report indicates that discrimination women encounter is to blame for the low the numbers of women in STEM fields. Lack of mathematical ability for females as compared to their male peers was not the cause of the low numbers. “Why So Few?” goes on to recommend that the solution to increasing the number of women in STEM fields is to provide role models and mentoring programs for young women.
As a woman involved in a STEM field for nearly 20 years, I found the conclusion and the solution of this report surprising.
My parents raised me somewhat unconventionally in that they did not ask the typical “What do you want to be when you grow up?” question. Instead, they told me what I was going to be when I grew up. When I was an aspiring figure skater, oboe player, and pianist, my father would often drive me to lessons. I remember him saying repeatedly during those drives, “You can’t put food on the table playing the oboe, the piano, or ice skating. You should be an engineer.”
The type of engineer was my choice. My father, a health physicist, knew that a Bachelor’s Degree in engineering would provide job security and a nice salary that would put the proverbial food on the table. My mother, who sacrificed a career to stay at home with her children, also had frequent discussions with me about engineering. She talked at length about people we knew who were in STEM fields and she would explain what kind of work those people were doing. She practically memorized the college admission handbooks and their recommendations for quality engineering schools.
Both parents were consistent in reminding me that it did not matter that most of my peers were seeking a liberal arts education. They instilled a confidence that it was just fine to be different. By the time I was in high school, it was a foregone conclusion that I was going to be an engineer. Four years later, my parents repeated this process with my brother.
I was not a math or science genius. Reading and analyzing literature was my preference, but majoring in English was not an option in my house. Engineering was it, whether I struggled with physics or not. Throughout high school, my parents embraced my academic challenges with constant encouragement and endless help. Together, the three of us worked toward my future with excitement, despite the challenges that my parents always approached positively.
I made it through a challenging Honors College Preparatory High School Program, and while I did teach my incompetent AP Calculus teacher calculus, I certainly did not ace the AP Physics Exam. My SAT’s were not stellar, but sufficient to get me into a several highly ranked engineering schools.
My college engineering classes were tough for me, to say the least. I did not engage in the typical social activities that so many college students do; there was simply too much studying to do. And again, while I did not graduate with a 4.0, I graduated in four years with three job offers waiting for me.
During my time at college where most of the engineering faculty was male (I remember only one female professor), I sought the helpful professors for additional assistance. The professors that weren’t very helpful I dismissed as being simply not helpful. It never occurred to me that they might welcome a young man into their office minutes after they had dismissed me. I had a goal and I was going to do everything I could to meet it, despite the people who weren’t willing to help.
This attitude is not a result of my personality; it was ingrained in me at a young age by my parents. If bias was there by instructors or peers, I didn’t see it.
As I went on to the workplace, I found myself in a male dominated field. I barely noticed. Over the course of 17 years, I have worked alongside only a handful of female engineers. One would think that I would have experienced some bias or discrimination, and yet never once did I feel that bias. Did it exist?
“Why So Few?” says it did. I missed it, and I attribute this to the fact that my parents guided and directed me in such a way that it did not matter what any human being – male or female – thought of what I was doing.
The most surprising thing about the “Why So Few?” report is proposed solution to the problem of why more women aren’t in STEM fields. Female mentors and role models are that proposed solution.
It is obvious that my mentors were in my own house. Teachers and professors weren’t necessarily going out of their way to encourage me in my engineering pursuits; that came solely from my parents. It seems obvious that parents would be the first step in encouraging daughters to enter STEM fields.
People often ask me how I became an engineer. When I recount my story, they are usually shocked with my parents’ guidance. Many parents have told me that they wish they had done more of what my parents did. Others ask me how they did it. What follows are some recommendations for encouraging children, both male and female to enter STEM fields:
• Talk about STEM fields with your children. Talk about the careers of the adults they know, especially those in math, science, or engineering fields. Discuss how those careers impact society. As you see the impact of those careers in every day life, point them out to your children. This may involve educating yourself a bit.
• Encourage your children to persevere when math and science seem tough. The “Why So Few?” report showed that math ability might improve with practice. A child struggling with math should not be labeled as “not a math kid”. Parents who are home educating their children can easily combat this attitude with encouragement, practice, and third-party help if necessary. Helping children persevere through challenging academic work will give them the confidence for future academic and life challenges.
• Eliminate gender bias at home. My parents did not assume that my brother was going to be better in math and science because he was a boy. Neither did they assume that I would be a better writer than my brother because I was a girl. While male and female brains are different, academic ability is not solely based on gender. Home educating parents should guard against perpetuating these biases.
• Encourage interests even though they may not lead to a career. Even though my parents were guiding me into engineering, they did not discourage my figure skating and musical pursuits. In fact, they encouraged them, counseling that those things would be something I could do for enjoyment the rest of my life. Their counsel that I was not going to make a decent living skating or playing was correct; I am not an Olympic level figure skater, nor am I a world-class musician. However, I still enjoy those skills today and the time spent learning them was worthwhile.
• Flood your house with math and science materials. Subscribe to science magazines. Point out technology news. Read books about math. If you are a non-STEM parent, don’t avoid math and science books, movies, and magazines. I am a STEM parent and I make an extra effort to talk and learn about history, as it was the weakest component of my education. Don’t avoid what you don’t know. Decide to learn about it with your children.
• Guide your children to dismiss bias they do encounter. If your daughter experiences discrimination, point out the folly of looking to a person’s gender for academic ability.
Even if you think that my parents’ unconventional career counsel of their daughter was a bit extreme, don’t wait for a special female mentor to show up and encourage your daughter to think about a math or science related career. Open the doors of math and science opportunities to your daughters by talking and exposing. Or, you may choose to follow the lead of my father, who now often asks my four daughters what kind of engineer they are going to be when they grow up.
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