WHen my now-eleventh grade daughter told friends that she was going into forensic science as a career, the response was two questions: Why? Why would a girl want to do that?
One of our greatest challenges in increasing the representation of women—particularly women of color—in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields is societal attitudes of what are “appropriate” fields for women. Research shows that women in STEM programs experience stereotypes and unconscious biases. We can address these challenges by expanding STEM outreach beyond middle school, where efforts currently start, to pre-school and kindergarten. As young female children are encouraged to pursue math and science, it will hopefully become more culturally “normal” to explore these career options as adults. Also, we should provide greater training for teachers to help them address stereotypes and unconscious biases in the classroom, in terms of their own behavior and that of the students.
Another significant challenge is addressing the micro-inequities experienced by women, especially those in STEM careers. One of these experiences is the “invisible woman” syndrome: a woman makes a statement or a suggestion in a meeting, but it is ignored. A male colleague makes the same statement/suggestion, and it is acknowledged and sometimes praised. Providing training to those in leadership and educational roles can reduce the frequency of micro-inequities, which have the potential of impacting the success of women.
Another challenge? Providing greater support to women faculty, in order to retain them in their positions, thereby creating a critical mass of faculty who can serve as role models to young women pursuing their education in STEM fields. At Cornell University, the National Science Foundation-funded ADVANCE program provides workshops and networking opportunities to help women in STEM fields create a sense of community.
Lastly, we need to address the challenge of women who want to pursue a career and a family. Career/family integration or “fit” needs to go beyond the mere existence of a policy—to become a cultural change that encourages and supports women in successfully addressing both their careers and their responsibilities and interests outside of work. My own experience reflects the benefits of a flexible workplace culture: without the support of my organization for a flexible work schedule, excelling at work and raising a child as a single parent would not have been able to happen—and this recognition would never have been possible.