Guest post: Staci Thomas on science, technology, and girls

What Bias?
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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33 Responses to Guest post: Staci Thomas on science, technology, and girls

  1. TulipGirl says:

    This is so encouraging! I was strong in math when I was younger, but even though my Dad is in the sciences (research) and my parents communicated to me that I could do anything I set my hand to do, I was pretty oblivious to the options available — especially in the maths and sciences. As my husband is a historian, the “soft sciences” naturally predominate in our home. Yet, I’ve seen how much I do need to encourage my boys and instill in them the value of math, science (and along with that, pragmatic studies) along with the topics that more naturally arise in our home.

    Through the years it has been interesting to me to see how very necessary it is to nurture our children in their natural bents — and also to encourage and prod them to explore and persevere in the areas that are more challenging. Both are needed, and both are oh-so-rewarding.

  2. Farrar says:

    This is a wonderful topic that I want to think more about and I think the suggestions the author makes for action are good ones. However, as she anticipated, the way she conveyed her own story was difficult for me to get past. I want to push my kids to try different things and to be practical in life. However, I also want them, in the end, to make their own choices and do the thing that will make them happiest. Being successful in life, to me, is finding a balance being being practical and following your bliss. I think I would rather hear about more ways to inspire a love of the STEM fields than how to simply dictate it as the only path of success.

  3. Staci Thomas says:

    Tulip: I am glad you were encouraged.

    Farrar: My parents would explain that they did exactly that: they led me to find a balance between being practical and following my bliss. I have a stable job that allows me to NOW engage in the arts and literature that I love; that, in my parents’ mind, is balance. I know that, had I just followed my true love (ice skating), I would be struggling because, at the age of 39, a traveling ice skating show would have fired me years ago.

    In writing this post, I focused on the lack of girls entering the STEM fields because that was the focus of the study referenced in the NY Times article. Regarding inspiring a love of the STEM fields, I believe that exposure is the first step. I think that so many children in the logic and rhetoric stages struggle with these fields because they simply aren’t exposed to the possibilities. How will children ever know if they love a STEM field if they aren’t shown the practical manifestations of the math and science subjects in real, live careers? After exposure, children need to be encouraged to explore something that they find interesting in the STEM fields. The exploration can be anything from reading on the topic to experiments. Following exposure and exploration, older children can investigate how that area of interest works in the real world. In short, how does one inspire a love of the STEM fields? Follow the general steps of the trivium at outlined in The Well Trained Mind. It will work for physics and chemistry just as well as it will work for understanding Plato and Beowulf.

    Staci

  4. “‘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.”

    I have to whole heartedly agree with the above. I am old enough that I missed the whole encourage girls in STEM wave while being young enough that it was also assumed that there were opportunities out there if I was able to grab them.

    I was a woman at the Naval Academy and then an officer on navy ships. I was often the only woman in the room. There were certainly people who were condescending, skeptical, not helpful or even mean. But many of them were like that to all of their students and subordinates, regardless of gender. And there were also a great many people who were helpful, supportive, and encouraging. Again, they were usually like this to many people they met, not just the women.

    It does annoy me to read about special mentoring programs just for women. Many of my best mentors weren’t women. In fact many of the women I was around weren’t the best role models. I want to be mentored by the best, not just by someone who fits a particular demographic. And I think that it subtly reenforces the idea that demographic is more important than expertise. I don’t want my sons to think that a women is less of a supervisor or mentor just because she is a woman and it never occured to me that I couldn’t look up to good academics and military leaders just because they were men.

    I do think that it is worthwhile to discuss with your kids the relative financial rewards of different college degrees. I love history and literature. But if I were to go back to work again, it would be my military experience and my jack of all trades BS degree that would probably get me interviews, not the literature major.

    • Staci Thomas says:

      Sebastian,

      Thank you for your service in Navy. I really like your point that many of your best mentors weren’t women.

      Staci

  5. TaraTheLiberator says:

    Wow.

    My dad said that I was going to be a scientist. My whole life, I was told I was going to be a scientist. I had zero interest in being a scientist. I was strongly interested in the humanities, and I have a degree in the social sciences.

    For many years it was a source of friction between my dad and me that I didn’t become a scientist.

    While I support efforts to increase the number of women in STEM fields, I don’t at all agree with parents telling their kids what their careers will be.

    • Staci Thomas says:

      Tara,

      I will tell you that my parents are extremely reasonable people.

      Had I shown incredible talent in a non-scientific area, they would have certainly altered their guidance to go into engineering. For a brief period, I had a teacher talking to a group of my peers about becoming a stock broker; when I voiced some interest, my parents certainly did not tell me that I could not be stock broker.

      Had I balked at the idea of engineering, I know that they would have guided me practically in the way I was insistent upon going. But I didn’t balk at the idea, I wasn’t insisting on a liberal arts education, and I was interested in the math and science fields because of their exposing me to it gently and age-appropriately.

      Staci

  6. Heather says:

    Great post, Staci. I don’t have the problem of encouraging my girls in the engineering field (I have 4 boys), but I do have the disadvantage of having a liberal arts major (psychology) and no background in engineering or hard sciences and having boys that love engineering. Could you recommend specific science magazines that you’ve found interesting for children?

    FWIW, two websites that my son (10) enjoys exploring are http://www.discoverengineering.org/ and http://www.teachengineering.com/index.php. I’ve found them helpful in exposing him to the different kinds of engineering programs available.

    Also, he’s had great fun with fischertechnik products (http://www.fischertechnik.de/en/index.aspx). I think they’re much more beneficial for engineering minded kids than some of the other building products available. Not only does each kit come with a “how to build it” book, they also come with a book that explains the “why” behind the design and asks questions to encourage the child to think further.

    I’m looking forward to reading more comments on your post.

    • Staci Thomas says:

      Heather,

      Thanks for posting those websites. They are great!

      As far as science resources go, I am a big fan of Scientific American and National Geographic (both the normal one and the kids’ version). I will summarize the articles in Scientific American for the girls, but they look at the pictures and the diagrams on their own. The Well Trained Mind has great science encyclopedia suggestions; Kingfisher and DK provide excellent grammar and logic stage science topic overviews.

      Mostly though, love of science and technology can come from parents explaining and pointing out STEM-related things that they see in real life. How does the light switch turn the light on? Where does the rain go after a storm and why do some roads flood while others don’t? Why is this bridge going to hold our car? How can I talk over my computer with someone in another country? Etc., etc., etc. I remember my dad explaining the Pythagorean theorem to me in our kitchen and he made it really exciting!

      This attitude comes pretty naturally to me with science and math topics. But history?!? I am CONSTANTLY looking things up so that I can make historical ties for the things I am teaching. My point is that one of the best ways to expose and increase interest in STEM fields is for parents to talk and explain and do some parental research if you don’t understand what you need to explain. And then do it all over again. :-)

      Staci

  7. dangermom says:

    Thanks for your story! I have only recently come to realize that I could have studied almost anything and done just fine–that success has much more to do with hard work and application than with native intelligence (which is also nice, but sometimes a handicap…). It never occurred to me to study anything besides literature, and I wish that I had at least known there were other possibilities. One college I applied to actually asked me to major in a STEM field (because of the dearth of women), and I just laughed.

    One minor reason that I homeschool is that I’m hoping to avoid the math phobia so many of us learned. I remember being 7 and confident in my math ability–by the time I was 10, I ‘knew’ that I was bad at math and that girls didn’t do math. I didn’t get that from my parents; they would have been horrified! My own daughters enjoy math pretty well and I hope we can continue with that. And we all love science.

    • Staci Thomas says:

      Dangermom,

      Your experience of being seven and math-confident to being ten and math-phobic because we were a girl is very much in line with what the study showed. That is such a same, and it makes me wonder how often that is occurring today.

      And your point about knowing about other possibilities…that is what my mom was SO good at. She was always interested in the careers of other people and would explain what they did and why. This wasn’t a planned thing; it was just something that she did very naturally. I hope that I am doing as well as she did with my own children!

      Staci

      • However, my dh and I have talked about the fact that he was also at some point convinced that he wasn’t good at math. Which was a bunch of rubish. He is incredibly smart and would have done fine if not for getting labeled as a book kid rather than a math kid.
        One of our goals with homeschooling is to avoid the baseless assignment of labels on our kids.

  8. I’m not a math or science girl, but the biggest math head in our house is our 10yo daughter. She reads Life of Fred books “for fun” before she goes to sleep at night. She cocks her head to the side and squints and then tells her older brother where he went wrong with his algebra problem. I am so intrigued by her natural affinity toward math and am curious to see where she goes with it.

    Interestingly, she can’t spell to save her life. Spelling comes naturally to my more language-based brain, and I see this tendency toward either languages or math all in my children as well. I do think their is something to some of us being wired one way or the other.

  9. Good grief. I see this tendency “in all of my children as well”. And there, not their in that last sentence. What was that I said about being a natural speller?

  10. Catherine says:

    Thank you so much for this article Staci! It really inspired me.

    I wish to offer a different perspective on the issue of women in the sciences. I’ve not seen the NYT article, but I am aware of a situation at my workplace (an academic hospital) that is a great example of how mentoring and leadership made a big difference in the careers of women scientists and doctors.

    In the 1990′s, the provost and other university leaders studied the academic careers of faculty and discovered that despite hiring significant numbers of women, vanishingly few were ever promoted beyond assistant professor, tenured, or made full professors. At first it was assumed that women’s choices to spend less time on careers and more on family accounted for this. Further study showed this was not true. Unmarried and childless faculty fared no better than married ones. The most important factor identified by tenured male professors was mentorship, and women, it turns out, did not know how to find mentors, keep them, and use their help in getting grants and promotions.

    In the mid-1990′s an organization was formed to formally assist young women faculty in finding mentors on the faculty. Since then, the numbers who’ve been promoted beyond assistant professor have steadily grown. Promotions are based on numbers and quality of publications, continued ability to attract grant dollars, and at the higher level, national and international reputation.

    Discrimination is less often, in this day and age, the result of overt bigotry or bias. It’s more often institutional, based on unconscious and nonverbal interactions, or unrecognized as discrimination. As a woman in the sciences, I’ve never overtly felt I was discriminated against. Still I think it’s very important to recognize the example your parents set for you: they realized that support, encouragement, and leadership outside oneself are very important for success in the sciences. Thanks again for your article.

    • Staci Thomas says:

      Catherine,

      This is a great story! Glad to hear that there are mentoring programs out there that are making a difference, and it is good to know that those programs will help capable young women who did not have encouragement at home at younger ages.

      Staci

  11. Shienny says:

    Thanks for this post, Stacy. It has been an encouragement for me. My daughter, almost 10, has a wish to work for NASA. She has been in love with Astronomy since she was 3. She’s good at both Math and Science, especially Astronomy. But being a “non-scientist” mom, I just don’t know how to direct her. I always encourage her to pursue her dream, but at the same time have this huge doubt in my heart. And, unfortunately, I suspect she knows that.
    I just wish I knew what to do besides the encouragement part and will appreciate more tips from you.

    • Staci Thomas says:

      Shienny,

      You say you are a non-scientist mom…so make the decision to learn a little more about science so that changes. Learn along side your daughter. Let her see your excitement for education and I’m sure it will make a difference. Check out the websites listed above. Subscribe to science magazines…get the hard copies…don’t depend on yourself to check the online sites. Go outside at night and look at her beloved constellations with her. Follow your lead and you might find out that you really are a science person after all!

      Staci

  12. Karen says:

    I have enjoyed reading the comments on Staci’s blog post. I have a specific interest in this topic because I am her Mom.

    I would like to make a couple of observations with the advantage of hindsight. Even as we intentionally guided our children to engineering a more important intent was to help them set goals. As parents we realize goals change but we felt strongly that even if the goals changed(as they inevitably did) it gave them a “tool” to work with as they pursued college admissions and majors. Both Staci and her brother graduated with degrees in engineering. Both worked in their specific fields but as both moved in new directions we cheerfully supported the career changes.Staci became a homeschooling Mom and our son went to seminary and is now a pastor in NYC.
    Specific but gentle guidance, exposure and many hours of talking and dreaming have proved valuable assets in parenting. We are now actively engaged in these discussions with our grandchildren.
    Karen

  13. Janet D says:

    I really enjoyed this post. It brought to mind a young woman who went to my church many years ago. She had followed her passion – dance – and graduated with a dance degree from a top state college. I talked with her about three years after she graduated and she said over and over to me “I wish someone had told me that a dance degree would do nothing for me. Yes, it was my passion. But I spent four years of significant time and effort and money – things that I cannot easily spend again now – to come out with a degree that, regardless of what I want to do, is almost worthless.” She was bitter about it for some time, wishing that anyone – her parents, her counselors, professors, etc – had sat her down and said “It’s your choice, but you need to understand where this is going to end up.” Maybe she would have done it anyway, but at least she wouldn’t have felt blindsided and let down by those around her.

    Certainly, if a child has the most unusual talent to be a world-class skater/athlete/artist, then he/she should be encouraged to follow that dream. But the truth is that the vast, vast majority of people end up working for an institution in some kind of defined-on-paper job. And if you have to end up ‘working for the man’ (that’s just a phrase) in some way, shape, or form, how much better to be one of those who is in demand, valued, paid-well-with-some-form-of-benefits. It is incredibly nice to have options, especially as one ages.

    I originally graduated with a BA in Business, and worked in a variety of marketing and management jobs at a variety of companies before getting my M.S. Ed. (that’s another story). I veered away from all STEM degrees originally, even though I was very good at science and math, because I didn’t want to “be an engineer/scientist/researcher…I am too social to just want to do that kind of work.”

    Ten years later, I wished many, many, many times that someone had told me (pre-college) that the people who would be the most sought after for the most interesting, best positions – everything from writers, project managers, marketing VPs, research directors, teachers – would be those who had a technical undergrad degree with some sort of business certificate/degree, or even just solid business or institution experience after the degree. They had the easiest time changing positions within the organizations I worked for, too.

    What I will tell my kids is this: just because you get an engineering degree (or health sciences degree, or computer degree, or any other STEM-related degree) does NOT mean that you will do that for a living. It’s a starting point. You want to be a writer? Great. Perhaps you will have the world-class talent to be a novelist. But the most sought-after writers (based on my fairly extensive experience) were those who could understand and write about technical/scientific/etc. fields/subjects/happenings in real-folks language. The technical degree often created that ‘automatic in’ that many other aspiring writers lacked when seeking a job at a magazine or marketing department.

    I know this post risks falling into the “college as career-prep only” track that so turns off many people (and with good reason at times). College should not be JUST about that. But to ignore the reality of what life is like after the degree – and the long-term significant impact that the choice of one’s degree makes in one’s life – is foolish and unfair to the student.
    **************************************************************************
    Thanks, Staci, for telling/showing a great way I can mentor my own children as they grow. I don’t know that I would have otherwise thought of it at this point in their young lives (they are 4 & 7!).

    • Staci Thomas says:

      Janet,

      You make some great points.

      My family has heard stories like your dancer story repeatedly. The repetition of these stories is what made the recommendations from the “Why So Few?” study so surprising to me. Parents need to be actively involved in guiding their children to make sound choices for their future. Mentoring programs are wonderful, if a child happens upon one of them. Unfortunately, these programs seem to be few and far between, though a friend recently made me aware of one in my local area.

      In regard to your point about writing, in addition to the engineering work that I do, I have recently been hired for several freelance writing jobs specifically because of my technical background.

      Certainly, there is more to college than career preparation. The life lessons learned during those years can be valuable. However, your point is well worth repeating: “to ignore the reality of what life is like after the degree – and the long-term significant impact that the choice of one’s degree makes in one’s life – is foolish and unfair to the student.”

      Staci

  14. Amy says:

    My husband is an engineer and I worked as an engineer before deciding to stay home with my children. Science and math are a big deal for us. When my eight year old, highly verbally skilled, daughter recently announced, “Math is hard. I don’t like math.” I replied (somewhat jokingly), “We don’t say that in our house.” Secretly, I have wondered if she would be able to do well in math and science when verbal arts are such a strength for her. This article was encouraging to me that we can help her succeed.

    Also, as an engineering student and as a designer for a heavy equipment manufacturer, I never experienced gender discrimination. I would count my-male-high school science teacher as the mentor who encouraged me.

  15. cathmom says:

    I love the way you have replied to just about every comment, making this truly a discussion. Thanks for a thought-provoking post!

  16. Brad says:

    Having an ability to do math, science, and engineering as well as I can the soft “sciences,” and having attended what I consider to be a challenging engineering school, the Air Force Academy, graduating with Academic Honors, I have mixed feelings about the importance of engineering and science to a quality life and a nation that excels because it is the political system in place that often impacts the ability of science and engineering to be done; and that political system is “nasty [and] brutish.” to cite Hobbes. Rational arguments often fall flat as emotions often dictate how things transpire. Both the quality and quantity of images appearing on television and the Internet cause the animal part of people to go into overdrive and the rational engineer part to go out the window. For example, in the approximate 48 days since the BP explosion, approximately 4,800 people have died in car accidents. Since 9/11, approximately 318,000 Americans have died in car accidents. Yet, where have our resources been applied? Not to that which kills the most, but to that which irrationally bothers us the most, terrorists, for example.

    The world is messy. Engineers in their isolation often think their equations can solve all the ills of society. They can’t change the nature of people, though, which is why they are often outmaneuvered by those who have studied the “soft sciences.” Do they have a role in society? Absolutely. Is their importance overrated? Absolutely. Engineering and science has allowed much material gain for many people in this world, but it also has come with a cost in terms of what it has done to the souls of people who no longer look at the world in all its beauty but instead try to figure out what’s the best way to take its resources and maximize them for the most material gain.

    That being written, I am glad I have this computer and the Internet so I can express my thoughts. (I am not going back and spellchecking this. I am a human who makes mistakes. That’s the real world.)

  17. twins05 says:

    Thanks for the interesting post! As a Ph.D. Molecular Biologist who recently started home educating my children, I appreciate the suggestions on how to help your children think about careers in science and math. I have mixed feelings about consciously steering my children to a particular field of study. As they get older and their strengths and interests become clearer, it may be easier for me to do. I am pragmatic so I definitely believe in helping them to think about how they will earn a living in whatever field they choose.

    As a woman in chemistry and biology, I never faced overt sexism. However, I can identify with Staci because my parents never questioned my interest in math and science. There was no discussion about my being a girl and being interested in math and science. Since it was a non-issue for me growing up, I never “looked for it” in my professional life.

    I agree that women role-models may not be the key to seeing more women in science and math. However, I strongly feel that the high demands of time placed on professional scientists (either in industry or academia) are prohibitive for women and men who want to make family a priority. I hope that by the time my children are adults there are many more mainstream professional job options that offer the flexibility and sufficient income many parents need to raise their families the way they want to.

  18. Charlene Hardin says:

    As someone who was labeled “not a math kid,” I thank you. Of course, I would like to echo fellow commenters in their assessment of STEM careers. We need artists, writers, historians, and anthropologists in addition to engineers and mathematicians. As a matter of fact, I’m a firm believer in the idea of creating a world filled with polymaths rather than specialists.

    Overspecialization can run a species the risk of extinction, and my mind can’t help drawing a parallel to humans in the so-called rat race.

    I do get a little tired of the lamentations “oh, there are no girls in the sciences” by the world at large. The last time I checked, it takes a bit of science to become a nurse, physical therapist, nutritionist, etc. and even design colleges can have a bit of science and technology to them. Of course, a nursing degree can typically be pursued in a variety of flexible formats not typically found in “hard sciences” (i.e. engineering, physics) and college tends to fall during the same time of life as the “childbearing years.” So, I think there is more to the story, as well.

    My guess, and this is just a guess, is that women will become more prevalent in these fields when more avenues for the sort of flexible education opportunities which benefit our biological nature open up. Not to say, of course, that a few more mentors would be a bad thing.

    Thanks for letting me add my two bits. Sadly, that is, no doubt, what it was worth. ;)

  19. Theresa says:

    I disagree with the idea of pushing any child to STEM fields whether or not they show an interest or inclination in the area. My father was an engineer and his experiences with regular layoffs and living away from his family for months at a time in another state just to put food on the table drove me away from that field. I wound up going to pharmacy school, because my parents would only pay for that (again, their reasoning was job stability), although I tested high in arts and literature. I agreed to stay in pharmacy school because my father’s experiences with engineering were ongoing through my college career. My plan was to work fulltime until I had children and then switch to part-time. Pharmacy was a man’s world when I entered pharmacy school in 1991. Cohort classes were 75% male. Within the last twenty years this has flipped, and most pharmacy classes nationwide have a female majority. Never in my career did I experience any male bias. After working as a hospital pharmacist for ten years, I took a job as a pharmacy technician instructor at the local community college purely for the schedule. At the hospital, I worked nights (6p-2a) 4 days a week and most holidays, but now, at the college, I have Monday-Friday dayshift, no holidays.

    So here are my points:
    1) No field of study is 100% stable and job secure. STEM fields might be the areas the educators “push” but funding for many of these jobs is government based. If funding is cut, then so are jobs. The jobs in these areas which are in the private sector are not 100% safe either. Whenever a pharmaceutical company has a failed drug study or the FDA does not approve a candidate for market, pink slips go out. Currently, due to the healthcare reform bill and the economy, there are few healthcare jobs (i.e. nursing and pharmacy). Older workers are not retiring because of the economic downturn and healthcare companies and hospitals are not expanding since nobody can predict the actual monetary impact to these facilities of the reform bill. These companies are in a holding pattern.

    2) Girls may select a nonSTEM field because of the flexibility allowed to them at different stages of their life. Not many jobs in STEM fields allow flexible hours for children’s field trips, unexpected school holidays, and taking children to afterschool activities. Since these fields are populated with a majority of men (who probably don’t have to deal with these issues themselves), fewer co-workers may be understanding of these situations and willing to cover for the female employee.

    3) Students who are pushed into a field by their family members will eventually leave it and, thus, waste the money spent obtaining the degree(s) related to that field. We have many healthcare students at our college pushed into a field by family members due to job stability and pay. Many spend years trying to get into the program of their choosing, and others, once accepted, fail because their heart isn’t in it. Worse is when we hear of students who graduated but never practiced in their field because they didn’t want to do it in the first place. Thousands of dollars (and taxdollars) wasted.

    Maybe we should just allow our children (male and female) to make their own choice after presenting all of the facts of the professions they are considering. There is no guarantee for job stability or pay in any profession, but the people who are the best in their field where they live usually do well. They may not do McMansion and Cadillac Escalade well, but they will be able to put food on their table.

  20. Sarah says:

    I was pushed into Engineering by my parents, and 15 years later, I think I am finally getting out of it, to homeschool my children and be adjunct faculty in psychology at an online school, after slowly plugging away at a PhD for a few years. I wish I had gone with my first love all along.

  21. Emily says:

    As a former PhD student in organic chemistry (I had finished my course work and just needed to finish about three years of research), let me address why I left a very coveted research assistantship (payed tuition & living expenses) and gave up a career in science. The Lord changed my heart to value family & children over a career. It had nothing to do with discrimination…but I realized I was not “high energy” (I need more than a few hours of sleep each night) and that I would have to sacrifice my future family if I continued on the path I was on. I kept hearing a speech in my head I had heard years before at a Women in Science seminar, where the mentor was talking about her nanny caring for her children; then I saw a nanny at the mall with children and their mother (it broke my heart). In addition, I knew that my husband would be required to follow me for the advancement of my career – what about him? I choose what was better. Do I ever have regrets? Only when my pride is on the line. BTW…I was told not to be a nurse when I was in highschool. (nurses do all the work, doctors get all the credit….I didn’t want to keep doctor hours…then I realized mine would be about as long). At least I’m not intimidated by teaching science & math -if only I could decide which books to use. :)

    • Nancy says:

      Emily,
      My husband took 10 yrs to get his PhD in Physical Chemistry, due to his prof leaving midway for a job in the private sector. Rather than start over, he decided to get an MBA, but then entertained the idea of being a ski instructor/ bum. In the end, he went back, slept in the lab and ultimately finished his thesis with a different prof while he was working as a rocket scientist. He was laid off when defense work decreased, but segued into optics and quantitative financial analysis. He works for himself and home schools our son. Meanwhile, I had my own rocky road with medical school when my single mom died during my first year. I was so depressed because I realized a lot of my motivation for doing it came from her. I took a yr off and looked into a lot of other options as my husband had done. The difference between us was he had never been pushed by his parents in any direction. In my case, I had to find my own motivation for becoming a Dr, which I eventually did. I chose a field with great flexibility and am very happy as a radiologist specializing in detection of breast cancer. I work part time, and although I was older when I had my kids at 39 and 42, they are the light of our lives and we have plenty of time to spend with them. In my case, I’m glad to have been given direction, otherwise I might not have believed in myself enough to take on a long and challenging educational path. The end result for both of us have been rewarding. Raising kids is sometimes harder than anything I have ever done! I may have been just as happy doing something else, who knows. Life is just choices, and I hope my kids learn how to make the best ones for them.

  22. I applaud this post. As a mother of young children I am encouraged and motivated to encourage them to excel in math and science. I already see a gift for math and science in one of my children. I love the statement about not promoting one child more than the other. For me that is a point well taken.

  23. Dara Grubbs says:

    Dear Satcy,
    Thank you for your thoughful and wise words in your piece, “Science, Girls and Technology.” I find it extremely refreshing that from your viewpoint your parents were a constant guidance to you in all areas of your growth from a young age. Kudos to you for being open and awake to their guidance and to their ideas. Truly, you are a visionary and a thinker. You are a doer! I see that your mom put in her “two cents” as well. I love to see this ongoing dialog! Your parents continue to love and guide you.

    My hope for my children is that they take a joy of learning into all things. I want them to be caring, interested, upbeat, truth-seeking, contributing individuals. I hope that they will find joy in every little thing. Everytime we start a new subject (we homeschool) I tell them that I’m fired up! There’s no “math people”, “science people”, etc. in our home. We’re fired up about everything, especially rockets! Isn’t that so neat that we can blast people into space? If that doesn’t fascinate you (all) I don’t know what will.

    While being optimistic and hopeful I do hope that they will find pleasure in avocations (Do what you love.) that interest them while they are gainfully employed (Love what you do.). (An avocation is an activity that one engages in as a hobby outside one’s main occupation. There are many examples of people whose professions were the ways that they made their livings but for whom their activities outside of their workplaces were their true passions in life.) Too often parents push their children in to avocations.

    I see your guidance to your children and your love for them, your interest in their happiness and their well-being as a pure form of love. Your time and your dedication is admirable.

    I ask my children this question daily, “What is the greatest gift?” And to this they answer, “love.” The second question is, “Tell me one thing your read in the WSJ (Wall Street Journal today.” Their answers vary.

    Finally, I would love to see you figure skate!

    Be a blessing and be blessed.
    Dara

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