Role models are powerful. As a young girl, one of my favorite television programs was “I Dream of Jeannie,” a 1960s television show about a male astronaut who had a beautiful but impetuous female genie. I didn’t want to be the genie; I wanted to be the astronaut and fly to the moon. But I had never seen a near-sighted African-American female astronaut. My dream was seemingly cut short before it even began. I eventually did make my way to NASA, and now I’m passionate about providing role models for girls in STEM.
Women in STEM
Fifty-seven years after real-life “Hidden Figures” Katherine Goble, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan helped pave the way for the United States to land safely on the moon, NASA announced the appointment of Holly Ridings as its first female flight director. Given the importance of this accomplishment for women in STEM, why did it take nearly six decades for a woman to make this achievement?
As the former NASA Chief Information Officer, a mathematician and woman, I am passionate about doing everything that I can to help improve the representation of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. The measures organizations like NASA have taken to close the gaps are necessary but insufficient if we as individuals do not do our part. First, we must examine our individual biases as barriers to gender inclusion. Next, regardless of our gender, we must serve as role models for girls and young women to encourage them to pursue STEM. Finally, we need to care and to understand that our society has a challenge to overcome and that we can contribute to the solution.
STEM and Gender Bias
Sydni was a young girl I was tutoring in 8th grade algebra. She was a good student who loved math and understood the course content well. However, when it came to assignments and tests, she lacked confidence. I worked closely with her, and over time, her confidence increased. Eventually she told me that her teacher had noticed that she was improving but had discouraged her from studying mathematics in college, telling her instead that she needed to study something like English. Sadly, she took his advice: Sydni did not pursue mathematics.
A recent study by Wang and Degol showed that the proportion of female STEM employees is much lower than the proportion of women scoring very high on the standardized tests used to source talented STEM professionals. Why would the teacher discourage Sydni if not for some unconscious bias that dictated that only boys study STEM? We must all, especially teachers, examine these biases that affect our interactions to ensure that we are encouraging, not discouraging, young girls, and not adversely affecting the STEM pipeline.
In January 2018, Airbnb hired Kenneth Chenault as its first African-American board member. At that time, they also pledged to hire a woman as the next addition to its all-male board of directors. They lived up to that promise. In August of the same year, Ann Mather became their first female board member. Many successful female executives aspire for board memberships, but we see too few examples of those who have made that achievement. The actions of board chairmen like Airbnb’s CEO Brian Chesky made a difference by providing this opportunity to Mather, making clear that representation matters.
Diversity and inclusion provide societal benefits that should matter to us all. Corporations like Northrop Grumman, with programs like their Inclusive Leadership Conference, see the benefit of a commitment to diversity and inclusion. However, creating a leadership culture that executes upon this commitment is critical. Leaders in power need to see and believe that gender diversity makes a difference.
Jocelyn Bell Burnell was recently awarded a $3 million Special Breakthrough Prize for her work on discovering pulsars. She was overlooked for the Nobel Prize in 1974 even though her male counterparts were honored for the work she had done. Now, Bell Burnell is taking individual initiative and donating her money to help underrepresented groups enter the field of physics.
Individual Efforts Make the Difference
We can make a difference. Starting with continuous self-reflection on our own biases, we can be role models or give visibility to role models to provide encouragement for those young girls who wish to pursue careers in STEM. These steps require passion and commitment to overcome barriers. Robert F. Kennedy once said that not many of us “… will have the greatness to bend history itself, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events.” Perhaps the gender gap seems daunting, but if we take these small steps, we can have an impact for women in STEM.