Learn from Smart Women

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Around the world, issues related to gender equality and an underrepresentation of women pursuing careers in the fields of science, technology, engineering, math, or STEM, are all too common.  So common, in fact, that the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, a recent agreement officiated by the UN, describes goals and outlines plans for addressing these very issues.  Since men comprise the majority of the population with careers in STEM fields, the agenda highlights the disparity within STEM education and related careers.  In addition, the UN has deemed February 11th as the International Day for Women and Girls in Science, which was celebrated for the first time this year.  This globally-recognized event emphasizes the need for social connection and support for women in order to close the gender gap and make STEM careers more inclusive and viable for women and girls.


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Unfortunately, certain pre-established dynamics have hindered women from pursuing and excelling in STEM careers.  In the realm of education (regardless of gender), the fundamentals of math and science are often more challenging for students to grasp.  These subjects tend to be presented abstractly, and taught through numerical processes and symbolic diagrams.  In addition, math and science contain specific rules and precise methodology that can be overwhelming.  Such topics can be learned through repeated exposure and practice, however, the process of trial and error, for many students, may seem never-ending.'


The more women in the field of STEM changing the world, the more others will empowered to follow in their footsteps.


Carol Dweck, psychologist and professor at Stanford, has conducted research suggesting that women are particularly ‘sensitive to critical feedback and failure.’  Dweck believes that women are more likely than men to be perfectionistic.  This attribute is maladaptive when girls are faced with the ‘challenge ridden world of young adulthood.’  Perfectionism can also be a drawback for those pursuing a degree in a STEM field.  Grades are often distributed according to a curve.  This method makes it difficult for students to achieve A’s, aiming to have most students receive B’s and C’s.

For young women who are accustomed to receiving perfect grades, getting lower marks may impact their self-esteem.  Complicating this dilemma, Dweck also adds that women are less likely to believe that their ability and performance can be improved.  Through her research, Dweck has observed that students who feel that their ability is unchangeable and incapable of improving tend to panic when confronted with difficult academic tasks.  On the other hand, students who have a ‘growth mindset’ believe that they can improve with added effort.  These students persist and persevere in the face of a challenge.  Unfortunately, the population of students who demonstrate holding this belief are not commonly women.

Beyond academics, the transition into the workforce provides other challenges.  Lina Nilsson, biomedical engineer and director of innovation at UC Berkley’s Center for Developing Economies, wrote an opinion piece in April 2015 for the New York Times and noted that in the U.S., only ‘about 14 percent of engineers in the work force are women.’  Nilsson acknowledges that mentorship and support groups are important resources that could help women succeed in STEM careers.  


My hope is that women will realize that their passions do align with the possibilities that STEM fields present to shape and improve our world.


Nilsson’s research yields a deeper issue that may also be holding women back from STEM.  She notes that there is a widely-held presumption that STEM disciplines have a narrow scope and are impersonal.  Nilsson points out that, on the contrary, the application of math and science impact everyone.  Engineering projects are underway, for example, to help transport clean water to communities in need.  Nilsson has observed that engineering programs attract more women when they emphasize STEM’s impact on social welfare.  More women need to understand that technological initiatives seek to identify and address our needs, making societal improvement a reality by helping our world and its inhabitants.

When considering whether or not to pursue a career in STEM, my hope is that women will realize that their passions do align with the possibilities that STEM fields present to shape and improve the world.  Carol Dweck and Lina Nilsson believe that the first step to getting women involved in STEM disciplines is by encouraging them to believe that they can not only improve their own lives, but also make an impact on the world around them.  The more women in the field of STEM that feel empowered to change the world, the more others will feel confident to follow in their footsteps.


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