Encouraging STEM #4: Reframe the Conversation

Part of a continuing series by Carrie Rogers-Whitehead based on her article, “5 ways to advocate for women in STEM,” with an in-depth look at each point. Check back weekly for new installments!

“Girls get more excited about STEM when they see it
as solving real world or helping problems”
– Anne Bastien, University of Utah’s
Lassonde Entrepreneur Institute

 

Women in STEM are problem-solving superheroes!

I was taken aback recently when my preschool-aged son told me, “Momma, girls can’t be superheroes.” I immediately gently corrected him that “Yes, girls can be superheroes too,” wondering why he would say something like that. I had always worked very hard to use gender neutral language, provided a variety of toys, and to set an example in my behavior, that girls can do the same things as boys. And yet, despite my efforts my son had picked up that only boys were superheroes, not girls.

After some reflection, I realized that one of his favorite shows, The Amazing Spider-man, had few women, and the main female character was Mary Jane, who frequently had to be rescued by Spider-man. Anne Bastien, program manager at the University of Utah’s Lassonde Entrepreneur Institute also shared a similar story. She went to Toys R Us with her young son and daughter to buy her son and daughter superhero costumes. After walking the aisles, she realized there were no superhero options for her daughter, only princess dresses. This says something and what we say to women matters.

Messages about women can be found in the home, the media, schools, and toy stores.
These conversations and images all influence decisions women make. Many of these decisions affect women’s choices to go into, and stay in, STEM careers. So, what can we do?

Start Early
If a girl only ever sees male scientists on TV or watches her brothers being bought building toys while she isn’t given the same opportunity, those moments make a difference over time. Kim Jones, the CEO of local digital communications company Vérité notes that: “Somehow the old stereotypes, of girls who bake and boys that engineer, still seem to prevail. If we can start the conversation around STEM early…we can start to shift our thinking.”

She suggests having “frank discussions around careers that are needed in tech and the above average income” those careers can generate. While discussing career options with girls is important, some of those frank discussions should be for adults, to help us realize the messages we send. Having that discussion with my son opened my eyes to some of the media he was consuming.

Possibilities More than Projects
And we can do more! Beyond talking to girls and boys equally about STEM careers, we can reframe how we talk about STEM careers! Anne Bastien reflected on her experience working with young adults saying that “when we talk about STEM education sometimes we think of it as when a youth says ‘rocket ships are cool’ then we encourage that youth to be a mechanical engineer.”

We are missing opportunities to engage girls through the possibilities. We can better encourage our girls with: “You could have a huge impact on the world as a mechanical engineer!” or “Pursue biomedical engineering, you’ll make a difference in people’s lives.” Focus on the people, not the rocket ship.

 


Girls CAN BE superheroes, engineers,
scientists, or whoever they want to be!
We can help by recognizing
that the messages around them
will play a role in making that happen.

 

 

 


Carrie Rogers-Whitehead is a senior librarian with Salt Lake County Library, teaches at Salt Lake Community College, and is a regular contributor at KSL.com. She holds a Masters in Library and Information Science and Masters in Public Administration and is passionate about women’s education. In her free time, she enjoys spending time with her preschool son and husband. Contact her at rogers-whitehead@hotmail.com

Pictured in Cover Photo

*Superheroes*
Storm: Kira Coelho – Graduate Candidate, M.A. Community Leadership – Westminster College
Han Solo: Candace Swenson Peck – B.A. English Literature – Brigham Young University

*Women of the University of Utah Department of Pathology*
Soumya Yandamuri – PhD Candidate – Bioengineering
Danielle Renner, PhD – Postdoctoral Fellow – Microbiology & Immunology
Vrushali Mangale – PhD Candidate – Molecular Biology

*Future Scholars/Superheroes*
Eleanor Christensen as Wonder Woman (co-starring Ben & Zack Nelson)
Scarlett Tuttle as both Batman & Captain America
Miriam or Lilia Hutchings as the Masked Crusader in Black/Pink/Purple


For More Info Check Out:

Read more on this topic by this author: “What you say matters: how to talk to girls to encourage STEM careers”

Encouraging STEM #1: Make Women Visible
Encouraging STEM #2: Find Role Models
Encouraging STEM #3: Create a Safe Environment
Encouraging STEM #5: Create Partnerships

The UWEI Research & Policy Brief: Utah Women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics)