When I was in middle school, I was an unapologetic dork. I played the saxophone, practiced Spanish with zest, was always picked last for sports teams and couldn't be bothered with typical "girly" pursuits. As a hobby, I created a newsletter (there were no blogs in those days), deciphering and analyzing lyrics of popular music such as New Edition, Prince and Culture Club. I also had a "band" called Rachel Goes To Epcot Center -- I recorded multi-tracks of original songs using a Casio keyboard, a boom box and cassette tapes. This type of eccentricity did not make me popular with the "in crowd," and I didn't care.
But in high school, fitting in started to matter more. My self-esteem plummeted as other girls teased me for being different, and I struggled with peer pressure. By the time I was 14, I was nearly failing my biology and geometry courses because I was so consumed with "my outfit and boys," as my math teacher put it at the time.
I am extremely lucky that my single mother -- alarmed at that math teacher's keen observation -- forced me back into study hours and the performing arts. Once again, academics became a priority for me, and I was too focused on performing after school to become distracted. By my senior year, I was engaging with boys by tutoring them all in calculus.
I was almost a casualty of the "leaky pipeline" for girls in STEM. My concepts of femininity and being accepted by my peers temporarily interfered with my self-esteem and my grades. And, as I look at young girls today, I'm afraid that, 30 years later, these threats still exist for young women. We see this through continually decreasing numbers of girls pursuing education in math and science. And cutting budgets for the arts (my saving grace) doesn't help.
Research shows that parental attitudes can play a role in preventing girls from dropping out of STEM education. Today, I'm a proud dork working in technology: My early newsletters are now my blog, and my recordings have transformed into a podcast. I'm surrounded by amazing smart people -- many of whom are also proud dorks -- and I founded L'Oreal's Women In Digital program to celebrate the importance of women working in technology-related fields. And the person I have to thank for my success is my mom.
If you are a parent of a young girl, I urge you to support your daughters who love math, science, technology and the arts and encourage them to stay on their paths. (I am a supporter of what I like to call "STE[A]M," as the arts helped me get through many tough times). Here are some tips to help them along the way.
Cheer Them On. My mother encouraged me to keep singing, dancing and performing -- keeping me out of trouble and involved in my community. She always came to my crazy performances. If you ever meet her, ask her to tell you about my voice recital where I sang a song called "If My Dog Were Green" and the time I joined a Christian performance church group (I'm Jewish.) This encouragement helped me get my self-esteem in check and taught me to be proud of what I loved to do.
Teach Them To Code. Encourage your girls to responsibly express themselves through technology. These skills can provide them with economic viability and a career. My grandfather once told me, "If you learn to type, you will always have a job." Today, girls need to learn how technology works to build a foundation for their future endeavors.
Encourage Failure. I know that it's okay to fail, to make mistakes, to not know all of the answers and to doubt your own judgments. My mother instilled this in me. When I didn't get the part I wanted in a play, she'd always ask me if I did the best I could and that was all that mattered.
Don't Force A Plan. I see so many young girls under heaps of pressure, and I truly believe that sometimes honing your critical thinking skills is more important than focusing on a career path. I sure didn't know where I'd be today when I was in college -- it took me many years (and mistakes) before I felt like I was "in the right job." But my professional skills included problem-solving, writing, speaking and math -- these skills can be used for any successful career.