As we celebrate the International Day of Women and Girls in Science every year on 11th February, we look at a worrying trend on why women account for only 27 percent of the STEM workers in the US, despite making up nearly half of the workforce.
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The United Nations General Assembly had declared 11 February as the International Day of Women and Girls in Science over two decades ago, but data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics does not give us much reason to cheer. Only 27% of the workforce in STEM is women.
Through the years, we have seen an increasing number of women opting for higher education and the efforts to engage and inspire girls to participate in STEM, but why do we still see a significant 73 percent of men representing the STEM workforce?
What could be the reason for this dismal number of girls pursuing STEM subjects? On this International Day of Women and Girls in Science, it is imperative to look at the whys and what we can do collectively to mitigate this massive visible gender gap.
Inspired by the Draw-A-Scientist Test (DAST), I asked my five-year-old nephew to draw a STEM professional. I defined a STEM professional for him. He promptly drew his mother, who is a doctor.
When I prodded further, asking him why he did not draw his father, also a doctor, he told me: “Doctor is a girl, so I drew Mummy.”
My sister-in-law got very interested in this exercise and told her colleagues and friends to ask their children to make a portrait of a STEM professional.
Six children, from ages five to nine, participated in this exercise. All the children have parents as doctors. Except for my nephew, they were all girls. Surprisingly, all of them drew lady doctors, barring one. She sketched her surgeon father.
My idea was to check what images children hold of STEM professionals. Six is too small a number to deduce anything, but there’s a silver lining. Times are indeed changing, and parents play a huge role in influencing children and dispelling stereotypes.
It is nothing short of amazing when mothers can inspire their children, especially their daughters. A study from the Harvard Business School indicated that daughters who had working mothers had more successful careers with higher salaries than daughters of homemakers. It might be a single data point, but it is becoming increasingly clear that working parents inspire their children.
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Parents are instrumental in how children perceive things as they grow up. They play a huge role in motivating and molding them.
Seven-year-old Ashley loves the little DIY electronics kit she received for her birthday. “She wants to build her robot from the ground up. Since she needs to learn the basics to build it, I gifted her an electronics kit,” says Ashley’s mother, Louise.
Also, take the case of Kia, who is an aspiring physicist. She attributes her keen interest in physics to her scientist parents, who have encouraged and guided her since she was ten years. Today she is equally grateful to her teachers.
The stories of Ashley and Kia are testimony to how parents and teachers play a pivotal role in inspiring and encouraging girls to choose STEM subjects in schools and colleges and, subsequently, a career.
However, every girl is not as lucky as Ashley or Kia. Kia voices her concern about her best friend and senior in college, who had to drop out of physics because of family and socioeconomic problems.
Wendy Freedman, an astronomer, and John & Marion Sullivan University Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics at the University of Chicago, rightly opines:
“In talking to many women scientist colleagues of mine, I have noticed that many of us have had fathers and mothers who have supported us in pursuing a scientific career. In particular, fathers can play an outsized role in encouraging their daughters to pursue non-traditional careers.”
“Finally, we cannot underestimate the encouragement of teachers from elementary school, through high school, and university.”
“Sadly, these ingredients have been largely missing historically, and even today, many young girls do not receive encouragement from their families or teachers to pursue a STEM career.”
STEM as a career option is opening up innumerable opportunities for women. Unfortunately, the number of women reaching the top is always lower than men. Research suggests that society thinks of STEM as a male bastion, making it look like men are better suited for STEM fields than women. It is also a common belief that women in STEM are less competent than their male counterparts. Unless they show exceptional success, nobody notices.
Several studies have shown time and again that women can accomplish just as well as men in all the STEM fields and gender does not make a difference when it comes to skills.
However, the crux of the problem lies in negative stereotyping, gender disparity, an unfriendly environment in schools and colleges, and according to a study by the American Association of University Women (AAUW), “social and environmental factors contribute to the underrepresentation of women in science and engineering.”
Where does this leave us? Fewer women pursuing STEM majors, and subsequently, the number declines further in the workplace.
– Graphics: Sidra Choudhry
According to the Pew Research Center data, women are more likely to join college and earn a degree than men. In the past four decades, women got the majority of all the degrees, starting from bachelor’s to masters and doctorates. Interestingly, they added up to 53 percent of degrees in STEM fields at the bachelor’s level, 60 percent at the master’s level, and 48 percent at the doctoral level.
The figures showing 58 percent of women accounting for professional doctorate degrees in health sciences are comforting. However, according to the same data source, we see very few women in physical sciences, math, engineering, and computing. When 80 percent of the STEM workforce comprises engineering and computer occupations, only a quarter of women represent the computing world, while 15 percent are in engineering.
Interestingly, Pew Research Center data shows women constitute more than half of the nation’s social scientists. The irony, however, is that social science accounts for only 3 percent of the STEM workforce.
The base for a STEM career is paved early on in life. Therefore, it is crucial to encourage and inspire girls early on from the elementary, middle, and high school levels. The AAUW study further suggests that the “growth mindset” environment and social belief play a vital role in girls’ achievements and interest in STEM. The report stated that “believing in the potential for intellectual growth, in and of itself, improves outcomes.”
Planetary scientist and Professor of Planetary Science, Physics, and Aerospace Engineering at MIT, Sara Seager remarks:
“A major issue facing women of every age — but especially girls — is lack of confidence. We need to help girls maintain the natural confidence most have at younger ages. Many of us who succeeded had parents or role models that established and reinforced building blocks for confidence and we need to find a way to extend this to all interested.”
Having role models and mentors is essential because when children have someone they can look up to and admire they end up gravitating toward their role models and pursuing a career path like their role models.
In the medical drama, The Good Doctor, when Dr. Claire Brown’s role model becomes her patient, she tells her how the story of Evvie Sinclaire that she had narrated during her high school graduation inspired her and kept her going. “So, I am a doctor because of you and Evvie,” she boasts. Though the story of Evvie was fictitious, which is altogether a different story, the impact a role model can have on anyone is humongous.
Parents and teachers can play a pivotal role in highlighting STEM women achievers, both contemporary and historical, that children can look up to as role models and be excited about their careers.
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Engineers and scientists are born in colleges and universities. Therefore, it is crucial to introduce small changes in the STEM departments. Promoting integration and attracting and retaining women students and faculty will help motivate many girls to pursue further studies. Also, equal participation in projects and research work will inspire girls further.
UNESCO, in its Advocacy Guide, lays down the following themes and “encourages us to use this guide for inspiration, for information, and for an invitation to a better future for us all.”
- After-school projects and clubs
- STEM camps
- Contests and competitions
- Role models and mentors
- Career guidance
- Online tools for hands-on learning
These small steps will encourage girls to pursue STEM subjects and make them feel supported, besides helping them get rid of negative stereotypes about their abilities. A collective effort to ensure gender equality and inspire girls that anyone with grit and determination can pursue their passions will bring in a world of difference.
Biomedical scientist, and STEM activist, Dr. Knatokie Ford, leaves us with an impetus for thought to ponder over:
“Cultural paradigms promote the persistent issues with attracting and retaining women and girls in STEM fields. Negative stereotypes and messaging shape self-perceptions and hence performance, which is further exacerbated by the culture of exclusion that has historically been a source of pride for some STEM practitioners.”
“It’s hard to excel in spaces where you do not feel you belong. There has also been a long-standing neglect of addressing intersectionality in women’s issues. Identity is multidimensional — race, ability, and sexuality all intersect with gender, yet the subtext of the focus on women has traditionally meant cis, able-bodied, heterosexual, and white.”
We already know what the problems are, but sometimes we tend to overlook them and keep hustling. A better future for all the girls in the world and for all of humanity depends upon what actions we take today. So on this note, what are we going to do about it?
Special thanks to Professor Wendy Freedman, Professor Sara Seager, and Dr. Knatokie Ford for their unbiased opinion on the topic. >
Iranian Mathematician. First and to date, the only woman recipient of Fields Medal (2014). Professor of Mathematics, Stanford University.
Image Credit: AP
“Maryam is gone far too soon, but her impact will live on for the thousands of women she inspired to pursue math and science.”
— Marc Tessier-Lavigne, Stanford President
A reason for every woman to believe that unconquered summits exist on all mountains.
Her life was a flash. And that sums up the brilliance of it all. An unassuming genius, professor Maryam Mirzakhani defied numbers. Be it digits and their roundabout-bent-over calculation over curved surfaces or in the mastery over geometry, Mirzakhani decoded the Math in problems that apparently did not exist. None ever saw the inherent abstract shapes and their myriad possibilities… leave alone binding it all in a formula. That’s the world Mirzakhani alone ruled.
“I grew up in a family with three siblings. My parents were always very supportive and encouraging. It was important for them that we have meaningful and satisfying professions, but they didn’t care as much about success and achievement. In many ways, it was a great environment for me, though these were hard times during the Iran-Iraq war. My older brother was the person who got me interested in science in general. He used to tell me what he learned in school.”
Interview with Maryam Mirzakhani, The Guardian (2014)
Born in Teheran in 1977, Mirzakhani’s childhood was set in the Iran-Iraq War days that ran from 1980-1988. Shortage and unrest are wartime training that govern its generation to think ahead. A hope for change strives for the need to excel. With elementary school done, she appeared for an entrance exam at Farzanegan Middle School, run by Iran’s National Organization for Development of Exceptional Talents, aimed to educate the brightest students. The three years here familiarized the genius with her innate gift.
“I met my friend Roya Beheshti the first week after entering middle school. It is invaluable to have a friend who shares your interests, and helps you stay motivated. Our school was close to a street full of bookstores in Tehran. I remember how walking along this crowded street, and going to the bookstores, was so exciting for us. We couldn’t skim through the books like people usually do here in a bookstore, so we would end up buying a lot of random books.”
— Interview with Maryam Mirzakhani, The Guardian (2014)
Interestingly, in the first year, she did not do well in Math. Her teacher pronounced that she was not particularly talented and Mirzakhani lost interest in the subject. As an avid watcher of biographies of people on television, she wondered if writing instead was her forte. There are anecdotes about how, as a young girl, she would tell herself stories about the exploits of a remarkable girl. Every night at bedtime, her heroine would travel the world bringing into action some grand destiny.
Her destiny took shape when, in the second year she had a different Math teacher who encouraged her. This was the game changer. Mirzakhani took on numbers with such delight that soon she started solving mathematical problems which left the boys in a quandary. As a duo, the girls were gaining recognition. And entry into the acclaimed school’s higher section was just a formality.
Girls in a strongly-held male bastion in Iran’s patriarchal society was itself a reason to sit up and take note of. Sometime in 1993, the two found a copy of previous Mathematical Olympiad (MO) questions. The fact that they solved it spurred them to the principal.
“The principal of the school was a very strong character. If we really wanted something, she would make it happen. Her mindset was very positive and upbeat – that “you can do it, even though you’ll be the first one.” I think that has influenced my life quite a lot.”
— Quoted from Erica Klarreich’s article
The principal arranged for extra classes for Mirzakhani and Roya. Hitherto, it only happened for the most talented boys. In Iran, the MO is something akin to a fiercely contested scholarship/ fellowship in the US. Being part of the MO team is a prestigious and hugely coveted honour. The next step for the girls was obvious. Or was the duo an obvious choice remains an open-ended question.
In 1994, the girls made it to the Iranian MO team. At the international competition held in Hong Kong, Mirzakhani scored 41 out of 42. She bagged the gold and her friend, Beheshti, was awarded silver. By this time, newspapers in Tehran were awash with pictures of two hijab-clad girls among a group of boys. The spotlight was clear and the focus sharply defined.
The following year at the same meet held in Toronto, Mirzakhani scored 42. In ways, there was no looking back now.
An undergraduate course in mathematics at the Sharif University of Technology came funded with a fellowship. During her student days there, she received recognition from the American Mathematical Society for her work in developing a simple proof for a theorem of Schur. In 1999, she completed her BS in Math and proceeded to the United States for post-graduate work. But not before “Elementary Number Theory, Challenging Problems,” a book jointly collaborated on and published with her friend Roya.
Her postgraduate days at Harvard were mentored by Curtis McMullen. The latter, a Fields Medal winner in 1998, and professor at Harvard, recalls the petite Mirzakhani as:
“She had a sort of daring imagination. She would formulate in her mind an imaginary picture of what must be going on, then come to my office and describe it. At the end, she would turn to me and say, “Is it right?” I was always very flattered that she thought I would know.”
— Quoted from Erica Klarreich’s article
From what was gathered, she was modest. She took her notes in Persian and loved to crouch upon the floor, drawing doodles on sheets of paper and write mathematical formulas around the drawings. To her credit, she had several papers published while still a student and finally in 2004, she was awarded a doctorate for her 130-page thesis Simple Geodesics on Hyperbolic Surfaces and Volume of the Moduli Space of Curves. For this exceptional thesis, she was also awarded the Leonard M and Eleanor B Blumenthal Award for the Advancement of Research in Pure Mathematics in 2009.
Dr Mirzakhani’s determination and questioning led her to solve problems where seemingly there were none. Her research work included Teichmüller theory, Hyperbolic Geometry, Ergodic Theory and Symplectic Geometry. For the layman, just figuring out the complex conundrums and measurements that run within, between and among them is daunting. For mathematics wizards, tweaking the surface to alter dimensions and working with a bit of science thrown in, is challenging. But for Mirzakhani, as she said:
“Usually I have some problems to think about on my own. You have to spend some energy and effort to see the beauty of Math.”
Not only did she simplify computing on curved surfaces such as a doughnut, but she also took it further to understand the dynamics of geometry in closed loops and on trajectories made by a billiard ball. The Fields Medal conferred on her in 2014, equivalent to a Nobel Prize in Math, was for her outstanding contributions to the dynamics and geometry of Riemann surfaces and their moduli spaces.
In spirit, this professor from Iran broke all conventions in a West pacing towards xenophobic stereotypes, in turn stoked by the politics of opportunism. As she put it, in the context of Math:
“If we knew things would be so complicated, I think we would have given up. I don’t know; actually, I don’t know, I don’t give up easily.”
Her words ring true of her life itself. Mirzakhani was the star of her generation and will continue to be the guiding star for many women aspirants looking for a career in the male-dominated STEM avenues. Her indomitable quest and insatiable curiosity were at the core; and lending it all sheen was her simple humility.
She is survived by her husband Jon Vondrak, a Czech and professor at Stanford University and daughter Anahita, who fondly recalls her mother’s “paintings” strewn across the floor.
This real magic comes alive in reel life. “Secrets of the Surface: The Mathematical Vision of Maryam Mirzakhani,” a 59-minute film by George Csicsery celebrates the genius by putting together mathematical colleagues around the world, her former teachers, classmates and students in present-day Iran.
The rather conservative Shia-dominated Iran published Mirzakhani’s obituary in papers with a photo without her headscarf. In life, she created higher goals. And when no more, her legacy continues to break barriers.