Monday, April 15, 2013

women in stem @ science online teen

On Saturday I attended the inaugural Science Online Teen (#scioteen) unconference in New York City. An offshoot of the popular Science Online, the event’s aim was to get local teens talking about STEM education, STEM careers, and the ways in which STEM topics are communicated online.

The women-in-STEM session I led was packed with teens and teachers wanting to learn more about pursuing science as a female. Joining me on our panel were six STEM professionals: Hilda Bastian (epidemiology); Krystal D’Costa (anthropology); Cynthia Duggan (neuroscience); Julie Hecht (ethology); Gabrielle Rabinowitz (molecular biology); and Jayne Raper (parasitology). (Mathematician and computer scientist Delaram Kahrobaei was also slated to attend, but had to bow out due to illness.)

You can check out a full suite of tweets, posts, and photos from the session via Storify.

It was wonderful to see the enthusiasm in the room, and to hear not only from our distinguished panelists but from students and teachers who contributed their own unique experiences and questions, on topics ranging from single-sex education to STEM hiring biases to female representation at professional conferences.

I also borrowed an activity that I’d seen at AdaCamp last year, in which participants wrote about positive and negative experiences related to being a female in science/tech. At ScioTeen, I asked session attendees to recount on sticky notes one experience in which they were discouraged from following some STEM-related activity, and one in which they were encouraged. We then posted the results on a board, noting the ages at which the experiences took place. Here’s a sampling of the results:


Mom and Dad told me never to “stop asking questions.” Age: 8

Math/science teacher made it fun and applicable, assisted in tutoring for [state exams]. Age: ~12

Teacher/mentor told me, “You’ve got what it takes.” Said I could be any kind of scientist I wanted to be. Age: 12

In 9th grade my biology teacher encouraged me to join a STEM group at school. Age: 15

Approached by math teacher junior year and asked to take a computer science class. Age: ~16

Teacher said I was the best student he’d ever had, that I was very good at science. Age: 17

Female physics teacher taught me calculus after class so I could take advanced physics. Age: 17

“Follow your dreams and prove to yourself and to everyone that doesn’t bet on you that you can do it.” Age: 18


Someone told me it’s going to be hard to get a job in the science field because I’m a girl. Age: 12

A male teacher told me I was smart but could never be a doctor because I’m a girl. Age: 13

A female relative told me: “It’s okay if you’re struggling with math. Girls aren’t good at that.” Age 13

Tech teacher had lower standards for girls and made it clear that he had lower expectations. Age 15

Bio teacher from other class told me my dissection was bad and I should not be a doctor... Ended [doctor] plans immediately. Age: 15

“You are a woman. You aren’t good enough.” 16 years old

Seeing all the men in my college physics classes. Age: 19

Female physics professor I admired and sought out as a mentor told me there is no glass ceiling and implied I was whining by bringing up gender. I left her office feeling discouraged instead of inspired. Related or not, I did end up leaving physics for biology. Age: 20

Discouraged in graduate school in bio class by professor because I was struggling. Age: ~22

"You’re pregnant? You just sabotaged your career!" Age: 27

::Sigh:: To me, the negative comments outweigh the positive ones here, simply because, while we all appreciate praise and encouragement, discouragement based solely on gender can be an extremely powerful disincentive for those who don't want to “buck the system” or engage in a prolonged struggle against social norms. Of course there’s no formula for this, but I would argue that even one discouraging experience can cancel out any number of encouraging ones.

I should also mention that while our session was a great success, not one of the 30 or so self-selected participants was a male. Certainly we need to educate girls about what a future in STEM might look like, but we also need boys to understand and appreciate the discrimination that still exists on the road to a STEM career.

To that end, it’s worth noting that STEM is a massive buzzword these days, and it might seem with a quick glance through the blogosphere and twitterverse that challenges related to women in these fields are all too well covered. The reality is, however, that the individuals most affected by recent studies and reports on these issues—i.e. teenage and pre-teen girls, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds—may not be plugged in to what’s going on. And so, it’s important to see physical gatherings like Science Online reaching out to the STEM professionals of tomorrow and helping to bring some of the hurdles they may face into direct focus. Let’s hope we can continue the conversation with more teens, in more places, in the months and years ahead.

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