ScienceGrrl released a report on the cultural barriers faced by girls and young women pursuing STEM. While it's easy to nod while reading the points raised in it, I'd like to take on a more cheerful perspective on how to solve the underrepresentation of women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). Here are three advantages STEM-literate women have:
1) We have tougher mental muscles.
Even though STEM is mainly male-dominated, we don't flee from it. We conquer what could have become a fear, as is the sad case for many girls who are afraid of, for example, maths.
Yes, we feel like outsiders in our work. I remember reading about a female physics professor who, in her undergraduate studies, was intimidated by the overwhelming number of male students, and hence dared not ask her professors questions. She didn't do very well academically, and it was only through much support later in life that helped her become a professor. Yes, we face gender bias, and it infuriates many that academic papers under a feminine name is given a lower rating than if the same work was attributed to a man. Yes, we sometimes find ourselves judged more harshly just by being female -- and even though it was a harmless student seminar, I still remember shaking when giving my talk on a certain maths topic because I was the only girl in the class of ten, and the lecturer was a man. Only in later talks did I feel more confident, because I realised that they weren't in maths to give me a hard time; they were in it because maths was their passion and mine too.
That said, our attitude towards these challenges, real or perceived, either make us or break us. Given the women who fought hard to give us an education in decades past, what better way is there to thank them than by being strong?
2) We are better gifted at bringing STEM to the world.
I suppose my desire to learn about the natural world was not as marked as other girls. I was more interested in expressing my ideas, and the arts naturally appealed to me. Yet looking back, I find that being a science student allowed me instead to overcome the myth of the arts-science divide prevalent in education today, as I could move between them freely.
These days I've also been taking courses and attending workshops on creativity in education and the rise of STEAM -- "arts" added to STEM -- or, more fittingly, how to express ideas in STEM. In every area of expertise, it is vital to know how to express ourselves, to have "soft" skills, tact and diplomacy, but they too are supported by the "hard" skills, the technical know-how, that make us effective people in the first place. The problem with our perception of STEM nowadays is that we tend to make it sound too "hard" when in fact it is derived from everyday life, and therefore can be approachable and relatable. Women have the advantage of big-picture thinking, and we are more capable of relating STEM to the general public and to policymakers. This is our time.
3) We inspire other women.
STEM is not for the faint-hearted. A thorough study involves doing calculations and raising many questions. Seeing other women succeed in STEM shows us that we, too, can make a difference.
One of my favourite sources of inspiration is Daina Taimina, a Latvian mathematics professor at Cornell University. When, as an undergraduate, she learnt about hyperbolic geometry, a kind of geometry which can be visualised as the geometry of creased objects like coral and lettuce, it was then a highly theoretical course. Her male professor could only make a fragile paper model out of the axioms underlying the geometry. She felt frustrated in the course because she could not interact with the model. Nevertheless, when it was her turn to teach it, by serendipity she found that she could create a tactile, playable model of hyperbolic space by crocheting. Her discovery also inspired a science writer, Margaret Wertheim, to incorporate the hyperbolic crocheting technique in raising public awareness of coral destruction. Who would have thought of such a wonderful application of a woman's mathematical discovery?
That's why it's important to introduce to students female STEM role models -- scientists, engineers, mathematicians -- and their struggles too. Show them examples of real-life STEM women who lead ordinary lives, not just geeky ones, such as through the biographies of contemporary women mathematicians at the Association For Women In Mathematics, or Ada Lovelace Day. It's perfectly healthy for girls to pursue STEM, and it's up to all of us to see STEM and women doing it for what they really are.