STEM Fields: Not Just For The Boys

The shortage of young women entering STEM fields is not simply a question of gender equality. It’s a threat to economic growth. We take a look at how roboticists and engineers in Pittsburgh are working to change that.

The relationship between young women and STEM subjects has become almost a trope, and a tragic one at that. We’ve all heard it over and over again, from the infamous Mattel Barbie doll that once uttered the words, “Math is tough!” to the unfortunately sexist obituary of pioneer rocket scientist Yvonne Brill published just last month in the New York Times. In what some have called “patronizing” language, the obituary of the famed scientist opened with praise for her beef stroganoff and willingness to follow her husband from job to job. What I’m getting at is that the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics aren’t exactly welcoming women at the door. More importantly, experts and educators have started to notice—and are working to change it.

“Today, women hold a disproportionately small share of the degrees in majors that strongly correlate to post-college STEM jobs such as math and engineering,” said Chelsea Clinton in a recent article for the Huffington Post. “It’s not only women who have lost out because of these disparities. Overall economic growth has suffered too,” she continued, citing a Booz & Company study that found that America’s gross domestic product would rise by 5 percent if women matched men’s employment rates. “With the U.S. Department of Commerce expecting STEM jobs to grow 17 percent between 2008 [and] 2018 … excluding women from the pipeline hurts American companies in search of the best high-tech talent,” she said. “Economic expansion hinges on both halves of the workforce receiving the tools needed to drive innovation.”

Many have echoed this sentiment, including Chairman of Shell UK Edward Daniels, who penned a recent op-ed for the London Evening Standard. “The chronic shortage of girls going into science and engineering is not simply a question of gender equality. It is a huge threat to economic growth. We are losing out on untapped talent and failing to keep pace with our competitors,” said Daniels, who stated that roughly 90 percent of girls “effectively disqualify themselves” from a career in engineering by the age of 14.

Daniels suggested that female role models in STEM fields need to be more visible if we are ever going to break the “just for boys” stereotype that surrounds potential career paths in math and science—something that the women behind the Girls of Steel robotics team in Pittsburgh have been working on.

The team, started in 2011 by Carnegie Mellon University’s robotics industry program director Patti Rote, aims to “give girls the skills that will last far beyond their high-school years,” according to their mission statement, and has been a huge success. As reporter Dave Zuchowski noted in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, in their first year the team took home Rookie All Star awards at the For Inspiration and Recognition of Science Technology (FIRST) regional competitions in both Pittsburgh and Washington, DC. Their winning streak continued in 2012 when they won the Engineering Inspiration Award. Last month, they won the Dean’s List Finalist Award and again won the Engineering Inspiration Award, which qualifies them for the world championship April 25-27 in St. Louis.

FIRST is another organization working to create opportunities for young people in STEM fields, with a vision of creating a world “where young people dream of becoming science and technology leaders.” The nonprofit has been staging youth robotics championships for over 20 years.

The vision of FIRST is unfortunately not yet a reality, but the work of programs like Girls of Steel is helping to make it become one. Groups like Click! Spy School, which introduces young girls to science concepts through “covert missions” where they are secret agents-in-training, and the career exploration program CanTEEN, also in Pittsburgh, are doing incredible work engaging young women in STEM subjects like never before and helping them envision future careers. Both are programs of the Carnegie Science Center’s Chevron Center for STEM Education and Career Development.

“We need to work with teachers to ensure classroom science offers girls a vision that matches their personal values by showing that it is the engineer, the physicist, who can make major contributions to solving global challenges,” said Daniels, and it is the innovative educators in Pittsburgh and elsewhere who are spearheading this movement, exemplifying the goals Daniels and other field experts have been echoing for far too long.

Published April 18, 2013