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STEM Careers Might Be Best Thing for Our Daughters–But There Are Challenges

*WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, President Barack Obama announced a new goal of recruiting 10,000 Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) teachers over the next two years. This announcement will move the country forward on the Obama Administration’s ambitious goal of preparing 100,000 STEM teachers over the next decade. *

Statement by President Obama: “When I came into office, I set a goal of moving our nation from the middle to the top of the pack in math and science education. Strengthening STEM education is vital to preparing our students to compete in the 21st century economy and we need to recruit and train math and science teachers to support our nation’s students.”

The President’s chances of getting his 10,000 engineers is “essentially nil.”

–Dr. David E. Goldberg, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign School of Engineering, 2011

Last fall I had the very great privilege of visiting the White House to listen as First Lady Michelle Obama made the introductory comments to the National Science Foundation’s new “Career-Life Balance Initiative.” As GeekMom Helene McLaughlin explained in her post about the event, “Women make up 41% of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math)-related graduates but only 28% of full-tenure tracked researchers.” In other words, at the top of the STEM chain, we’re losing huge numbers of women.

This is true despite the fact that it is actually in the nation’s interest (and womens’ interests) to provide these female graduates with the supports they need in order to keep them in the STEM pipeline: On average, women in STEM careers earn 33% more then women in other fields, while STEM jobs are among the most stable and profitable in the current economy. Juxtapose these facts against the recent New York Times article “Young Mothers Describe Marriage’s Fading Allure” that reported that birth patterns for women under 30 are experiencing a radical shift with “sixty-three percent of all births to women under 30 in Lorain County occuring outside marriage…a figure that has risen by more than two-thirds over the past two decades, now surpassing the national figure of 53 percent,” and a mother might begin to believe that the single best way she can prepare her daughter for adulthood is to steer her into a STEM career. Convincing most women that STEM jobs are desirable, however, involves a hydra head of hurdles.

NSF’s Work-Life Initiative was aimed at just one log-jam in the STEM-careers pipeline: getting women into tenured PhD positions in science, technology, engineering, and math. In order to achieve this goal, the National Science Foundation planned to begin promoting family-friendly opportunities at the PhD level–for instance: encouraging the extension of the tenure clock and allowing grant suspension for up to a year of parental leave.

There are many other weak spots in the women-in-STEM pipeline, however. Recent studies have found that “roughly 40 percent of all students planning engineering and science majors end up switching to other subjects or failing to get any degree”–a fact that is partially attributed to the traditional “freshman year math-science death march” and partially attributed to the fact that science is hard. Students in the hard sciences have to study longer and work harder to earn GPAs that are often lower than GPAs in the arts or softer sciences. This is actually resulting in an alarming number of young people graduating from college with useless degrees in the current job market.

For girls in particular, additional STEM-career pitfalls occur in middle school, when according to author and educator Rachel Simmons, girls begin to experience a “psychological glass ceiling” that tells them, “Yes, you be smart–but make sure you don’t make anyone uncomfortable with your intelligence.” Simmons goes on to say:

“Girls experience an alarming loss of self esteem as they approach adolescence–and this is a loss that crosses ethnic, racial and socio-economic lines. In a 2006 study, 74% of girls told researchers they were under a lot of pressure to please everyone. In my own research, when I asked girls What is a good girl to you? I was told: It’s a girl who has to do everything perfect, never disappoint anyone, be liked by everyone. So despite this age of “girl power,” girls continue to get conflicting messages about personal authority and after college these amazing girls actually become known for more troubling distinctions. They may be less likely to ask for a raise, to manage conflict and failure, and to advocate for themselves.”

A young woman experiencing cultural pressure “to be perfect” may find it particularly challenging, then, to major in STEM fields that are notorious for lower grades but are characterized by high intelligence. Even if she does successfully major in a STEM field, she may not have the emotional skill-set to thrive in a male-dominated workplace.

Yet another snag in the STEM pipeline exists even earlier in students’ development. A recent Scientific American article promoting the This is What a Scientist Looks Likewebsite recounted a study where kindergarteners were asked to draw a scientist. Invariably, they drew a picture of a grim white man in a white lab coat—and explained that they didn’t see themselves that way.

With so many obstacles for anyone–particularly women–to gain entry into STEM fields, one begins to wonder: where are the solutions and what can parents do to fight against a near-overwhelming tide. Here are my thoughts:

Without the life-long support of parents, children–particularly young women–are less likely to study for and enter careers in science, technology, engineering, and math. What are you doing to make sure that your children are job-ready? Leave your suggestions and ideas in the comments.

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