Are Girls Being Nipped in the STEM?

By Rohini G. Sandesara, APHL/CDC Training Fellow, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, NCEZID, DVBD, Dengue Branch, Molecular Diagnostics and Research Laboratory

Are Girls Being Nipped in the STEM? | www.aphlblog.org

On October 1, 2013 the US federal government shut down and with it hundreds of thousands of people were not allowed to work by law, including myself.  As a result, I spent an obscene amount of time on the internet reading about almost everything.  Something that caught my attention were a few websites talking about Ada Lovelace because a day to celebrate her was approaching.  I was happy to see her getting some publicity and wanted to see her being recognized for two things:  1) she was an intelligent woman and 2) she was the first computer programmer EVER.  Unfortunately, her day came and went and I was sorely disappointed in the minimal exposure she got; I had to dig into women-focused websites to find blurbs about her.

During this time I also noticed a lot of articles about federal departments that were forced to close.  I saw a fair amount of light being shed on the sciences and how these agencies were handling the shutdown.  Even the research being done in Antarctica got a decent amount of coverage.  There were stories of what was going to happen to the animals used in the research that had come to a halt, the inability of NIH to accept new patients into clinical trials, the CDC unable to do proper influenza surveillance right at the start of flu season, the FDA not being able to inspect imported food… the list goes on.  So on October 15, 2013, an internationally recognized day to celebrate Ada Lovelace, I was surprised that more people did not take advantage of these circumstances to advocate for the STEM fields at all, let alone women specifically by using Lovelace as an example.  On the one hand there was a lot of talk about what these shuttered federal agencies do, yet on the other hand, a great opportunity to encourage investment, time and support for these fields was passed by.

As a female scientist, I would love to increase the number of women in these crucial fields of study by using opportunities that are already available.  The internet makes the world a very small place and there is no reason not to use it to advocate for women in these areas.  Missed opportunities like Ada Lovelace Day are rampant and inexcusable.  Companies and organizations with wide nets cast all over the world through marketing and consumerism have the best resources to encourage girls from a young age to pursue the STEM fields, but they choose not to.

LEGO regularly has a computer engineer whose bio reads “In his spare time, he programs his own video games, catches up on the latest posts in his favorite web forums, and hangs out with his pet robo-cat.”  They now also have a female scientist who will “…spend all night in her lab analyzing how to connect bricks of different sizes and shapes…”  Neither of these character descriptions help to dispel stereotypes of people on these career paths.  This alone is enough to push young girls away from STEM fields, because they may identify being a scientist with not having a life outside of lab or a computer programmer as someone who is socially isolated.  TV shows and movies also advocate for this thinking by showcasing the idea that scientists’ work is the focus of their lives.  This could not be further from the truth. There are plenty of scientists who exhibit just as much passion for their work as they do for hobbies and interests outside of work.

We need to expose the public to real people in these fields by getting the word out there about who they are, what they do and why they do it.  UNESCO recently formed a scientific advisory board consisting of scientists from all over the world to help influence policy.  A solid 50% of them are women; however, neither the formation of this board nor the gender makeup of it was widely circulated in the media.   This should have been news-worthy because it is important for people to see the positions these women have and show what scientists actually do rather than the fictional representations that are often projected on us.

Without understanding of what STEM fields entail, it is no surprise that there a skill shortage is forecast in many of these sectors.  Without the active dissolution of stereotypes in these fields, we are knowingly pushing away brilliant minds and studies show they tend to be female. (See these studies: 1, 2, and 3.) There is no one type of person that goes on to study physics, become a biomedical engineer, develop software or build robots.  Many different people pursue these fields; that is why we see progress in them.

Ada Lovelace was a pioneer for women and kickstarted the technology saturated world we use every day without a second thought.  Her day of recognition coincided with a time when people were becoming more knowledgeable about STEM fields, yet her accomplishments were not leveraged to their fullest potential.  We should be using the opportunities we have at our fingertips to advance knowledge about STEM fields so that we do not give the wrong impression of what goes on inside these worlds.  These are the fields that directly influence our daily lives without most of us even knowing how.

About Ronini: Through a fellowship run by the Association of Public Health Laboratories (APHL), I am currently working in the Molecular Diagnostics and Research Laboratory in the Dengue Branch of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). I am passionate about scientific research, cutting edge technology, photography, expanding my culinary skills and travelling.  Living in Puerto Rico for this fellowship is also exposing me to much more island life than growing up in New Jersey ever did, and I can’t really complain about that!

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