Encouragement for women in STEM-related fields needs to start early
By Scott Meacham
Copyright © 2015, The Oklahoma Publishing Company
When we asked Dan Covey, the Belle Isle science teacher who was telling us about the school’s all-student Engineering Fair, he said something that really struck me.
“We have equal interest from boys and girls,” Covey said, “but my top students are almost always female. I can’t think of a time that I was thinking about top students and there weren’t girls in the group.”
If there is interest, ability and achievement among middle school girls at a rate that is comparable with, if not better than, middle-school boys, why is there such a disparity at the university level in the number of females earning degrees in computer science, engineering or physics?
“We feel like we are doing such a good job of getting them where they need to be,” Covey said, “then something happens later on. I see the pattern over the 12 years that I’ve been teaching science. There’s something built into the way the system is set up after they leave middle school.”
When Dr. Farideh Samadzadeh, professor of computer science at Oklahoma School of Science and Math (OSSM), entered the computer science field, she was one of only a few females in her graduate program. She says it’s different now.
“I have taught at OSSM for 22 years now, working with young men and women for almost a quarter of century. Girls are just as engaged as boys,” she said.
But, Samadzadeh says, things happen along the way.
“People think it has to do with some kind of inherent difference in capabilities and interests between girls and boys,” she said. “But it isn’t. The difference is, whether some teachers realize it or not, when it comes to science and math, they treat young women and men differently.”
It’s not a matter of systemic bias or desire on the part of anyone to have fewer women in engineering, computer science, or physics. Samadzadeh says that the cumulative weight of all the verbal and non-verbal cues from society in general and teachers in particular causes girls and young women to think they don’t really belong in a technical environment.
When we don’t apply women’s talent and diverse perspective in the fields where we need it most — in the labs where research and invention drives innovation and in technology-based companies — we all lose.
So while our K-12 schools, universities, and mega-corporations like Google and Facebook are working to draw more girls and women into their ranks, what can each of us do every day to help our daughters, sisters and nieces be part of the promise that is high tech?
Tell them they are smart. That they belong in computer science labs and engineering classes. That they are good at problem solving. That the difference in their approach is welcomed and desired. And, maybe most importantly, that we need them.
Do it now and every day.
Did you know?
Women earn 57 percent of bachelor’s degrees, including half the degrees in biological science. However, women receive just 18.2 percent of degrees in computer science, 19.2 percent in engineering, and 19.1 percent in physics.
SOURCE: National Science Foundation
Scott Meacham is president and CEO of i2E Inc., a nonprofit corporation that mentors many of the state’s technology-based startup companies. i2E receives state appropriations from the Oklahoma Center for the Advancement of Science and Technology. Contact Meacham at i2E_Comments@i2E.org.