My daughter participated in her school's Science Fair for the first time when she was in first grade. It was optional for first graders, but I encouraged her to participate. Her project was the standard static electricity experiment using cereals and a comb -- a great example of using things around the house to understand scientific concepts at the first grade level. Three kids participated from her class -- two boys and her. On the day of the presentation, a boy came up to her in class and told her, "Girls are not supposed to do Science Fair." This was a six year old boy, who had clearly come to this conclusion with the help of one or more adults in his life -- at home, at school, in the playground, at a friend's house, or through watching TV. It does not matter where and how they got this notion, but a young child from a middle to upper-middle class family making a statement like the above drives home the following point -- that society places little confidence in the ability of girls to do STEM. There is ample evidence in the literature that this phenomenon is quite pervasive. And it is one of the main reasons why many girls are turned off from STEM at a fairly early age.
In my daughter's case, the above incident had almost no long term impact on her perception of STEM as an area of interest and a potential career path. Both her parents are STEM professionals and she is surrounded by family friends most of whom (including many women) are STEM professionals. Unfortunately, this is not the case with most girls faced with similar challenges in their formative years.
Young girls are not the only ones who have to face such preconceived notions about female aptitude for STEM. Women STEM professionals do too. I was at an international technical conference a few years ago. As I was making my way from one session to another, a male conference attendee approached me and asked me if coffee was going to be served soon for the conference attendees. I was dressed in business casual clothes and had a conference name tag, which identified me as working at IBM and a conference participant. Inspite of these visual clues, I seemed to have been mistaken for a person who arranges coffee for a conference - vis-a-vis a person who might be presenting a paper at the conference (which I was). I was mildly irked, but this incident had no impact on me per se. It merely served as yet another item in my portfolio of incidents about perception of society towards women and STEM.
Examples like the above abound, both in my personal life and that of many other women and girls I know. What needs to be done is to systematically address the underlying problems, by publically showcasing female role models in STEM, and by providing mentors to potential female STEM professionals starting at middle and even at upper elementary level classes. Incidents like the two I mentioned above are like a huge road bump on the STEM path for females, and mentors can provide the extra push needed to ride over the bump.
Five years ago, I started a non-profit organization called More Active Girls In Computing or MAGIC, that provides 1-1 mentoring to middle and high school girls, over a period of 4-8 months. The mentors work with mentees on STEM related projects of the mentee's choice that gives them first hand experience of the MAGIC of STEM. They also introduce the girls to an array of resources necessary to assess various STEM areas and careers and to determine if STEM is the right choice for them. MAGIC is making an impact in its own small way, as evidenced by testimonials given by the program participants.
We are a long way from a complete solution, but MAGIC and several other efforts are helping to steer us back in the right direction.
What are some of your favorite non-profits that help women get into the STEM fields?