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.
Ask any seven-year old girl what she wants to be when she grows up, and you're likely to get a plethora of answers. The small voice accompanying those bright, optimistic eyes might proclaim that "I want to be a doctor!" or "I'm going to be a teacher!" or the tried-and-true "I'm going to be a mommy when I grow up." Call me crazy, but I'm betting you're not going to hear, "I want to be an Agricultural Scientist when I grow up!" Or the even more far-fetched, "I'll be an Epidemiologist" or "I want to be the next Steve Jobs." No, I don't think you'll hear those professions in your typical second grade class!
It's not because girls are not as smart in math and science than boys. It's not even that girls are just not interested in subjects related to the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. Research shows that 57 percent of undergraduate degrees are granted to women, 60 percent of the graduate degrees and 52 percent of the PhD's. Over the past 40 years, 42 percent of the STEM related degrees are held by women, but women comprise only 27 percent of the STEM workforce. So the question remains: Why is there such a gap and disparity between the high number of men working in STEM fields as opposed to women? I believe it begins earlier than we've previously suspected. Women working in STEM fields as engineers, physical scientists, computer programmers, mathematicians and other jobs are widely considered "NERDS." It is a term that we STEM women mostly embrace. In college, many of us traded late-night parties for long study sessions. We headed up study groups and flocked to each other as if we were apart of a special "NERDY" society. Although we knew that the passions we had for STEM related fields made us special... We also knew it made us an outlier of sorts. This was a cultural and social connection that most of us had long known about-- some since elementary school. It wasn't that we were weird but we grew into the idea that because we excelled in math and science, we were 'NERDS.' It was a classification of sorts that we were thrown into, albeit some unwillingly.
Having attended boarding school and subsequently becoming the youngest fellow (at age 16) within Penn State University's Biotechnology Department, I had my share of nerdy moments! On top of my interest in science, I also pursued dance, tennis and violin from an early age. From an early age, my parents (and mother, especially), encouraged me to pursue every interest, from dance, to humanities, math and science to violin. (just as my father was encouraging my two older male siblings to pursue sports and fast cars!!!) If I showed a propensity for a school subject or activity, I remember my mom telling me that, "There is no limit for you-- As long as you put God first and do the hard work and you will succeed." She was right about that equation.
So the question remains: How can we interest girls and subsequently women to pursue careers in the STEM field? I believe the first step we should take (across the board), is to ensure that girls and young women interested in STEM. subjects have accomplished role models and mentors available to them from an early age. Women who have not only succeeded in the way of test scores, high grade point averages and innovative ideas, but women who have families and those who wouldn't necessarily be called "NERDS." Rarely in the media do we make the connotation between beautiful and sexy women and "NERDS." We must begin to change the idea of what a "NERD" is. To pursue and succeed in a STEM field, you don't have to look a certain way or fit a certain mold. We can change the negative, physical stereotypes currently associated with girls and women who are interested in STEM careers. Let's think outside of the box! That outgoing girl who is interested in dance, lip gloss and other activities can STILL be a future engineer, scientist or pharmacologist. Why limit young girls and hinder the amount of women matriculating into STEM careers because of an antiquated stereotype? We must not "box ourselves in!" As STEM mentors, we must ensure that girls know that women can have "Beauty" and "Brains." These two are not mutually exclusive-- even within the STEM field. And that is a truth that we must perpetuate.
As more girls seek opportunities in the STEM fields, we will become the power of "ONE." There is power in numbers! As more women (not necessarily "NERDS") share their experiences with young girls, this will open a whole new world of identification, interest and acceptance into the STEM world.