While it’s common knowledge that women are in the minority in most STEM careers, that number has been steadily growing over the past few decades. For example, in 1970 women represented only 3% of engineering occupations, whereas in 2011 they represented 13%. The number of bachelor’s degrees awarded to women in engineering rose to 19% in 2012. However, even with the upward trend, there are still several challenges that women face when starting such careers, some even before they start college. Here are 10 phrases I’ve heard with regard to my chosen path:
- “Engineering is for boys.”
- “You’d make a better nurse/teacher.”
- “Be careful not to break a nail.”
- “Your job is to take notes.”
- “You only got in because they needed more girls.”
- “Are you from HR?”
- “Great, we’ll have to take that harassment training.”
- “Now we have to watch our mouths; there’s a girl around.”
- “Aren’t you going to leave when you have children?”
- “Are you one of those feminists?”
Many of these are heard across the board for women with careers, but it surely makes the challenges of engineering even more difficult. Young girls are steered away from STEM towards the jobs others feel are “meant” for them. If I hadn’t been surrounded by the right people throughout my life, I likely would have been scared away 10 years ago. That being said, here are several ways you can be supportive of girls entering STEM careers:
- Demonstrate good role models: Seeing famous, and even local, role models actively participating in STEM careers is a great motivator. Many female astronauts remember seeing Sally Ride fly into orbit on Discovery and thinking “if she can do it, I can do it too.” Show examples of women who have succeeded in STEM fields, or find local mentors/groups that can match up future engineers with professional counterparts.
- Limit gender-based expectations: We need to encourage children that their path is up to them and their interests, not expectations of what role they should fill. While historically men and women flocked to particular jobs, this should not define people’s choices for the future. If a girl wants to be an engineer, she should be an engineer (as a recent Twitter conversation discussed).
- Increase gender esteem: How many times have we all heard the phrase “you ____ like a girl”? In fact, a recent commercial highlighted the fact that it’s assumed that “like a girl” is equivalent to “sub-par” or “weak”. We are almost all guilty of this, but we need to stop relating half our population to inferior skill sets. Girls need to know that they can be just as strong and intelligent as the boys.
- Avoid pressuring girls to “prove themselves”: This may sound counterintuitive, but I hate when people advise me to go “prove myself” as a woman in engineering. I should be proving myself as an engineer just like the men, but not because I’m female. We need to focus more on skills than on gender.
- Focus on facts over assumptions: Some of the words that have hurt me most throughout my life were spoken when someone assumed I got a job or scholarship only because I’m a girl. We need to not be skewed by such gender-based views on the world; particularly in STEM it is the facts that matter. Look at people’s abilities before you attribute their traits to gender.
- Demonstrate all sides of STEM: while not everyone wants to become an electrical engineer, they may be interested in biomedical engineering. STEM fields cover such a broad area of work, that there’s nearly something for all interests. We need to show off all of the different aspects of technical careers so that aspiring engineers and scientists can understand all that they can achieve.
- Seek out professional groups: The Society of Women Engineers is a good example, but there are a great number of professional STEM groups (both female and mixed) that offer STEM resources and solidarity in dealing with any gender-based prejudices. Plus, it’s always nice to have friends and connections in your field.
- Teach and seek balance: If you ask most people to describe themselves, the first thing they’ll tell you is their job. We are more than our jobs. Too often I’ve seen or felt that if I participate in any feminine activities then I’m going back on the personality that I’ve established for my career. So I too need to remind myself that people are multifaceted and can have any number of interests.
I have been fortunate to have highly supportive people in my life, and hopefully these insights will help you to be that person for someone else. For any girls interested in pursuing a career in engineering or any other STEM field, I have this final piece of advice: no one can tell you what you enjoy doing and no one decides your skills for you; you choose your path with your dedication and passion.