In a recent blog contribution to the Huffington Post, Chelsea Clinton says she is obsessed with “what works,” which may make her a nerd. She adds that she isn’t the only one so obsessed. She points to millions of girls and women around the world who share a curiosity and affinity for what makes that world go round. Yet, as she puts it, “Across gender lines, intelligence exists in equal supply. But in far too many places, opportunity does not.”
Closing the gender gap in those “places”—the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM)—is where professional engineer Karen Purcell is centering her efforts. She hold a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from Widener University and is founder and owner of PK Electrical, an electrical engineering design and consulting firm. She is also founder of the non-profit organization STEMspire, http://www.STEMspire.com.
Purcell realizes what heights women can reach in STEM fields, so long as they are ready and willing to fight for a career that reflects their passions and aptitudes. Purccell has written a book with suggested solutions to the situation, “Unlocking Your Brilliance: Smart Strategies for Women to Thrive in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math.” It is available for purchase at http://www.amazon.com, http://www.barnesandnoble.com and through all major booksellers.
“The US share in world patenting and scientific publishing has been on the decline,” says Purcell. “One of the significant reasons behind this trend is that female students in this country are not being encouraged—as they are abroad—to pursue career paths in STEM.”
Consider these facts from the Department of Professional Employees:
• Women account for more than 57 percent of the workforce, but only 47 percent of science professionals, 25 percent of computer and math professionals, and about 14 percent of architectural and engineering professionals.
• Men continue to out-earn women in STEM fields, making an average of 20 percent more than women.
This is an important topic, as Clinton clearly points out. Purcell addresses this in her book. Following are some of her ideas.
We Can STEM the Gender Gap
Why is there such a gender imbalance when it comes to STEM fields? What characterizes a career in math or in science that keeps them male-dominated even today, when women—at least on paper—share the same freedoms as men? What is it about, say, physics that attracts men and repels women? Is testosterone a required variable for understanding inertia or balancing the Schrödinger equation? Why are there so few women?
There is no easy way to explain why more women are not encouraged to follow STEM career paths. Whatever the reasons, and no matter how complex they prove to be, they cannot be justified. There is no legitimate excuse for anyone not being encouraged to follow his or her passions in life because of gender.
Studies that have examined test scores for both sexes at a variety of ages suggest that academic performance is not the greatest obstacle for girls who want to study math, science or engineering. The gender stereotypes instilled in girls’ minds at an early age are the real dream killers. By the time girls reach their teenage years, they have already formed opinions about which occupations are appropriate for their sex.
Many young women decide to avoid science altogether without knowing its promise or the stimulating work it entails. That’s because they are rarely encouraged by their parents, teachers or peers to follow such a path and therefore are not exposed to it. While young males with just average mechanical and mathematical abilities are likely to be encouraged to explore the STEM fields, it is only young females with remarkable abilities who are thought worthy to be prepared for the field.
It is important to confront gender stereotypes head-on, and long before young people are faced with declaring their majors at the college level. Without making efforts to break gender stereotypes, we face the consequence of limiting the potential of our youth, both female and male, and equally important, the innovation potential of our country (see http://freakonomics.com/2012/01/23/the-patent-gap-a-new-marketplace-podcast/). If careers in all STEM fields were truly open to both sexes, future generations would be encouraged to pursue the careers that best matched their interests and skills.
Throughout history, women have achieved tremendous accomplishments in the traditionally male-dominated STEM fields. Women worked on the Manhattan Project, contributed to our understanding of DNA, discovered radium, and helped design and build the Golden Gate Bridge, to name just a few accomplishments.
In addition to mastering difficult subjects and techniques of experimentation, however, these women also had to overcome the obstacle of a bias against their participation in and restricted access to STEM disciplines. Although that hurdle is less overt today, biases and restrictions still prevent women from choosing STEM career paths in large numbers.
Overcoming the lack of exposure is one of the main obstacles standing in the way of creating more gender balance in the STEM fields. So, what can professionals do to help? Act as a mentor. Especially for women, teaming with a mentor is a career strategy that can bring huge benefits in male-dominated work environments like science. The majority of successful women time and time again credit their participation in some sort of mentorship program for dramatically helping them to reach their career goals.
Although not everybody is cut out to play a mentoring role, many professionals will take on the opportunity to be a mentor if shown appreciation for their efforts. Those who are being mentored must put in the extra work in order to demonstrate that the guidance of their mentor is leading to success in college as well as on-the-job results. While the feeling of making a difference will be a rewarding payoff for mentors both on a professional and personal level, professionals will inevitably want those being mentored to reach professional goals and milestones.