Proud to Be a STEM Girl

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.

It might surprise some of you to learn this, but long before I spent my days advocating for the rights of women and girls, my work hours were regularly filled puzzling over problems relating to ceramics, metals and cement. I was once a metallurgist. A field not widely pursued by women, I enjoyed the experimentation, complexity and rigor of the work.

My interest in STEM started in high school, when I often challenged my best friend in algebra contests. We competed to see who could finish the most problems in one minute. I loved the game, the problem-solving.

Later on, while studying for a final matriculation exam at home in India, I vividly recall a conversation I had with my father about career aspirations. I wanted to be a literary critic. He listened as I waxed on, without interrupting and said, "That is good, but you have a talent with math. Use it."

I was lucky. I knew people who had careers in math and science. My grandfather was a mathematician, one of my uncles is a physicist and another a metallurgist. Math and science was all around me. This is not true for most girls.

More girls need encouragement to pursue STEM careers. The Girl Scout Research Institute recently published an extensive report called
The report highlights the perceptions, attitudes, and abilities of girls who are interested in and girls that are not interested. Many of the statistics within the study mimic my own life, including:
  • 76 percent of STEM girls say their parents have pushed them to think about what they want to do when they grow up compared to 67 percent of non-STEM girls
  • More than two-thirds (68 percent) of STEM girls report that their fathers encourage them to pursue STEM, compared to 35% of non-STEM girls.

But what about the girls who don't have those models? Exposure to professionals in STEM, especially women role models, is critical to a girl's success in the field. Girls may be interested in STEM, but what they lack is adult support and mentors to turn their interest into action and a livelihood.

STEM education will give girls a better chance of thriving. According to a report, women with STEM jobs earn 33 percent more than women in non-STEM jobs.

A Chicago-based organization,
, recently release preliminary findings from a study called
According to the study, Chicago is moving in the right direction with engaging students in STEM:
  • Programs served as many -- or more -- girls as boys (56.2 percent and 43.8 percent respectively).
  • More than 2,032 OST STEM programs were run by more than 500 organizations in 2011.
  • Opportunities are abundant and available throughout nearly all Chicago neighborhoods.
These initial findings are promising, but also show some disparities:
  • Latinos were underrepresented compared to their representation in Chicago Public Schools.
  • Programs were very likely to target low-income students, academically at-risk students, and youth at-risk of violence. However, students who were English Language learners were not amongst targeted student populations.
  • Fewer than a third of middle school programs included mentoring as a program goal.

My work as a materials scientist opened up the door for me to learn valuable, transferable skills that I have used in my second career as a nonprofit executive. As a former "STEM Girl," I can say that science and math developed those skills and that's what I want for all girls.