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Exceptional Women in STEM Should Be the Rule

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WOMEN IN STEM
Melissa Moritz
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Editor's Note: This post is part of a series produced by HuffPost's Girls In STEM Mentorship Program. Join the community as we discuss issues affecting women in science, technology, engineering and math.

We all like to think we're the exception to the rule. That a business strategy that proved unsuccessful for a colleague will work for us once we add some personal touches, or that a client who's been tough-to-crack for everyone else will magically melt under our smooth talking. As a woman in STEM, I've come to realize that in my case, I actually am the exception to the rule... and that's a bad thing.

Heading up Teach For America's STEM initiative, I've had the humbling opportunity to work alongside women from all sectors to provide kids in our country's highest-needs communities with transformative STEM opportunities to put them on a different trajectory in work and life. I recently attended an event benefitting the Brilliant and Beautiful Foundation, where I spoke about my passion for advancing STEM studies and careers and just last month I was at the FBI's Washington Field Office speaking to women of the bureau about teaching as a legitimate STEM profession. After both of these experiences, I was overwhelmed by women thanking me for encouraging them to excel in science and technology jobs. Some even emailed saying how much it meant to see a woman succeeding in the predominantly male field. I was shocked -- these Foundation and FBI women are among our nation's strongest analytical thinkers and information gatherers, and yet even they felt out of place in the STEM boys club.

Chelsea Clinton recently penned an insightful and accessible overview of the state of women in the STEM workforce so, instead of offering broad statistics here, I'll focus on a field critical to our nation's domestic health: computer science. There are 1.4 million computer science job openings expected by 2020, and not nearly enough qualified women to give the thriving field equal representation. This incongruity has nothing to do with our genders' inherent abilities, and everything to do with the STEM perceptions and opportunities available to us. As early as second grade, girls' attitudes about math and science begin to diverge from their male counterparts. According to a 2011 study published in Child Development, "Boys associated math with their own gender, while girls associated math with boys." Fast forward to high school and only 19 percent of computer science AP exam takers are female; similarly in college, only 19 percent of Bachelor's degrees in computer science are earned by women. From an early age, females don't view themselves as contenders in math and science -- as a result they're not fostering a passion for STEM, nor are they being encouraged to do so by teachers and mentors. The result is that half our population is being left out of the world's most burgeoning industry.

I can honestly -- and naively -- say that it never once occurred to me that I couldn't grow up to be anything I wanted. I feel very privileged that this was my experience. I did math problems over dinner with my engineer father and math-teacher mother, and my penchant for STEM blossomed under my middle-school science teacher Mrs. Schwartz. It was no surprise to anyone that I graduated with a degree in Biology from MIT, and later became science teacher in Teach For America's New York corps. In the classroom, I encouraged all of my kids equally to pursue their passions -- and of course, I did my best to place STEM among them. It wasn't until I started my current role that I realized that a woman who was encouraged to pursue STEM as a child can be a rare thing indeed.

It's critical that we foster a passion for STEM among our Pre-K-12 girls if we hope to one day have equal representation in STEM jobs. The belief that "girls just aren't good at math and science" can't be tolerated -- not only is it not true, it's dangerous. This mindset is what makes young women content with Cs in biology when they're capable of As, and what makes those equally talented in STEM and the humanities pursue the latter as a career.

According to 2011 survey by Change the Equation, a whopping 37 percent of women said that they're not good at math. Think about how many times you've seen someone give a coy smile and say, "You handle the check -- I'm bad at math." Now think about how often people flaunt being poor readers. They don't -- this sort of misguided pride doesn't fly with literacy, and it shouldn't for STEM either.

By working collectively, we can change the culture of STEM and bring more women into its professions. This starts with encouraging girls in their pursuits from an early age. Encourage Pre k-12 girls to chase down every math and science opportunity their school offers, even if a class is comprised largely of boys, or a teacher tells them they're "not right for it." The next time a young woman says they're bad at math and science, call them out on it -- let them know that this is just a mindset, and not what their mind is actually capable of. And lead by example. Work the dinner check out yourself and show any observing girls just what you're made of.

We must also make this charge personal. Amazing mentorship programs like The Huffington Post's Girls in STEM and STEMConnector's One Million Women Mentors give female professionals the chance to share their passion for innovation with the next generation. We all have something to give to this movement, whether it's volunteering at a local school's science fair, taking special time with a young intern, or simply encouraging a young woman who's on the fence about applying to a "reach" technical university.

It's my dream that when it comes to pursuing their passion, every girl is as naïve as me growing up. That they never question where they belong, and never doubt what they're capable of. That no matter what dream they chase, there's strong female representation guiding the way. By fostering a passion for math and science in our young women, we are giving them the tools to enter professions that quite literally shape the future. And to make sure this future includes and honors people of all backgrounds, we must encourage the unique knowledge and experience women bring to the STEM fields.

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