Sometimes you find an article that you read and you feel compelled to say something on the topic. I felt that way yesterday when I came across this post on BlogHer. For those of you who don’t have time to read it, it is a post about whether the statistics regarding women in STEM are right. Are girls now being pushed into STEM and discouraged when they find something else they like more, such as communications or languages? The author also feels that girls in the STEM fields in college get more support than those in the liberal arts fields. Although the author did make a point to include these videos, which I think are important for anyone to see no matter what your opinions on the women in STEM issue (if you have an opinion on it at all):
First of all (for those of you who are not aware), my bachelor’s degree is in chemical engineering. My parents had always been more about keeping our interests alive over any feelings of having to stick with social norms. I also come from a long line of feminists and women who pursued their interests and education no matter what anyone else thought. My grandmother holds a masters degree (in Economics no less). My mother became a criminal defense attorney during a time that women were often called “Tootsie” in the court room or the job was simply seen as “too rough” for a woman. I believe women and girls should be encouraged to take an interest in math or science, if that is where their hearts lie. I also believe that they should receive the support they do. I don’t believe that the support women in STEM receive downgrades the choices of women in other fields.
My experience as a female engineer was really a mixed bag. I was definitely in the minority in my engineering classes and that bonded some of the girls in a way that I don’t think we would have otherwise. We drew on each other for support when we were feeling inadequate at something, which happens to a lot of people going through an engineering program in college (men or women), but I think for us it meant more. When we got frustrated, we questioned our place in the field. Some of our male counterparts were supportive of us being there, others ignored our ideas on group projects. Some of us were even talked down to on some group projects. For those who decided to leave the field and change majors, the question always was, was the social aspect too difficult or did they find something they loved more? Did they even know their true reasons?
The most strange experience I ever had during my engineering program was when in a senior design class, I became a member of the first all female group ever for the project. The group was completely random to be honest. We all knew each other, but we didn’t even hang out in the same circles during the classes. (You know how people always sit and study with the same groups of friends?) Anyway, we were definitely treated differently during the project. I wouldn’t say that the professors and TAs questioned our abilities to complete the project. In fact, we were significantly more organized and creative than some of the groups without prompting, but you could tell that they so badly wanted us to succeed that they made themselves available to answer questions or help us focus our brainstorming, whereas they wouldn’t drop everything for the other groups in the same way.
Our mandatory meeting with our professor midway through the project lasted a good 15 minutes longer than any of the other groups, I like to think it was because we inspired him with our approach, which was different than any other group at that point, but I can’t avoid the fact he wanted us as women to succeed. This same professor had been extremely supportive of me when I was surpassing many of the other students in our one required computer programming class earlier in the program. The success of one female in a new frontier field is an inspiration to all that follow.
However, the part of the post that I really disagreed with the author on is the following line:
“But hey, while women were learning to communicate in other languages, to understand and function in a globalized world, to think critically about transnational issues, men in STEM classes were learning how they could fail exams and yet pass the class with an inadequate command of the subject material because of some crazy curve grading.”
While at the time of my studies, I was extremely angered by the curve system (mainly due to the fact that my importance and abilities were judged based on the others in my class), the curve and the collaborative failing of exams was not a judge of the ability of the individuals in the subject matter. Oftentimes, our exams would push us to think creatively, using what we knew of the subject matter to take it one step further. Nothing in engineering is basic. Engineering is where creativity and science meet. No problem is exactly the same and there are often multiple solutions, which is not possible to test on standard engineering tests. The addition of these more creative problems was to make us look at the subject matter from a different viewpoint later. A person is more likely to analyze a test they failed than one they aced.
I have to admit that after I had completed my degree, I did not pursue an engineering career. Why? Because I pursued another interest in technical sales and I hope to take it one step further with my MBA in order to pursue business or financial analytics. I talk to the men and women pursuing academic STEM projects every day. They are my customers. I am happy to report that many life science labs seem to be run by women. In my experience, women in these fields or have experience these fields, are more self confident, less needy for attention, and more driven to reach their goals, than the women in general I have found in other fields, perhaps the mix of support and adversity have made them stronger.
So, no, there isn’t a negative side to encouraging girls to pursue STEM or challenging the girls who decide not to. It makes them more driven in wherever they end up and less dependent on others opinions, especially because they are told things from both sides; those who support them in different ways. It forces them to make their own decisions, and once they do, they are a force to be reckoned with.