2018 Women in Engineering Empowerment Essay – Rita Esuru Okoroafor

A majority of people are inspired by others who had overcome negative circumstances to achieve their dreams, people who do things out of the ordinary, or unique people they have read about.

Females are underrepresented in STEM fields, but an interesting study shows that this divergence actually starts in the teenage years . In order to change the future demographics within the STEM fields, efforts must be made ahead of the teenage years when the students start making career interest decisions.

How can the representation of women in STEM fields be increased?

1. Female Ambassadors are needed. The educational system, especially in the elementary schools, should be such that a time is dedicated where females in the STEM fields can come to the schools to talk to female students and share their stories. A female sharing how she overcame her fear for math or how her science grades improved might motivate a young girl. This may be incorporated in schools’ science weeks.

2. Starting early. I have had the privilege of interacting with pre-schoolers, and I have observed that at that age they are very curious. Introducing STEM at the pre-school age can help students gravitate towards STEM foundational concepts especially when they see that it can be easy and fun. For example, concepts like buoyancy and viscosity can be taught to kids using their toys and the fluids such as water and honey.

3. Using fictional stories. The younger generation starts out reading fictional stories to develop grammar and vocabulary or hear them as bedtime stories. Most of these stories are already stereotyped4 – females are passive and bound to the home. Stories can be used to change this. One article asserts that “Stories do not just develop children’s literacy; they convey values, beliefs, attitudes and social norms which, in turn, shape children’s perceptions of reality”5. Fiction can be used to introduce STEM to girls. This is actually one of my personal dreams – to use fiction to shape children’s perception of STEM.

4. Ensuring sustainability. One-time efforts may make significant impact but such impact could fade away when realities set in. However frequent efforts such as annual workshops where women ambassadors engage with the students, will help to reinforce what has been said or demonstrated earlier. If these events are very interesting and improved upon continuously, they can attract more females to the STEM field.

5. Expanding the target audience. While there are initiatives aimed at attracting females, these females still study alongside males or work with males. Thus, the males need to be prepared to support and encourage females. Having talks, workshop or events that also educate the males of all ages would prepare them to be better colleagues.

6. Educating all ages. Gender stereotypes are often proliferated through home environments, family members, extracurricular activities, and media content. Without educating children’s support systems, opportunities shared at school may not be supported outside of school. Workshops, handouts, or dinner discussion points on unconscious bias and gender stereotypes could be given to help raise awareness to improve gender parity.

1 Johnstone, C. (2014) “The Psychology of Inspiration”, https://www.positive.news/2014/perspective/blogs/positive-psychology-blogs/16372/psychologyinspiration/, accessed February, 04, 2018.

2 Giang, V. (2013) “9 Sources Of Inspiration For Highly Successful People” http://www.businessinsider.com/9sources-of-inspiration-for-highly-successful-people-2013-7, accessed February, 04, 2018.

3 OECD (2017), “The under-representation of women in STEM fields”, in The Pursuit of Gender Equality: An Uphill Battle, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/9789264281318-10-en.

4 Petter, O. (2017) “Five reasons to stop reading your children fairytales now” https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/fairy-tales-children-stop-reading-parents-bodyimage-gender-roles-women-girls-sexism-a8067641.html, accessed July, 28, 2018.

5 Albers, P. (2016) “Why stories matter for children’s learning” https://theconversation.com/why-storiesmatter-for-childrens-learning-52135, accessed February, 06, 2018.