This is a guest blog by Jacqui Lipson, Vice President at Widmeyer Communications
As a youngster I was single-mindedly focused on marine biology and very inclined to science subjects. All signs pointed to me pursuing a degree in that area and potentially a career in the field. But I left it behind. There was no event or issue that prompted the switch, nothing dramatic—I simply lacked a mentor, someone who could see my passion and encourage me on that path.
It’s natural for young people to want to explore the world around them, but an interest in the novel simply isn’t enough. A child’s natural inquisitiveness needs to be nurtured and sustained—especially if it is to bear the fruit of a successful career in adulthood. This is particularly true of scientific and technical careers. According to Change the Equation’s analysis of data from both the National Center for Education Statistics and the College Board, between 2003 and 2009, 48 percent of bachelor's degree students who entered science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields switched to non-STEM majors or dropped out by 2009. Many young people express interest in the natural and created world— the entire notion of children’s play, in fact, is firmly rooted in the experimentation and creativity that form the foundation of STEM disciplines-- however we see a significant drop off in these interests as youngsters—especially girls—enter middle school.
It goes without saying that increasing the number of women and underrepresented minorities in STEM fields is not only necessary from a workforce standpoint, but it would also open the door to a more equitable future in STEM for those individuals who currently feel shut out. When it comes to young women, in particular, we’ve long since proven wrong the assumption that girls are less inclined to STEM subjects. According to a 2012 Girl Scouts Report, STEM Generation, research showed it’s not that young women have declining interest in STEM; they have so many varied interests that a lack of focus or clear vision of female role models hinders their pursuit of STEM. Unfortunately, gendered stereotypes still dominate the field, and these stereotypes often make STEM career paths more complicated to navigate for women. At the college level, women are six percentage points more likely than men to switch out of STEM majors, according to recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics. The STEM community, including academia, nonprofits, professional societies, corporations and even small business, has an obligation to support and encourage students to develop and maintain their interest in STEM, but we are failing.
There are several ways to address the gaps that continue to plague women and STEM. One of the more successful components of diversity programs is built around the simple concept of mentorship. Support from a role model who offers guidance, encouragement and opportunities may be one the keys to keeping girls and young women interested and succeeding in STEM studies and careers. It’s a critical ingredient and one that many agree works: According to research conducted by the Hispanic Heritage Foundation, three in four female students interested in a STEM career who also have a mentor feel they will be successful in pursuing that career. Organizations like the American Association of University Women, who have been studying the challenges surrounding STEM and gender diversity for years, also point to the importance of solid management practices, which include mentorship opportunities, as key to supporting women’s success in the field.
From corporations to nonprofits, organizations across the nation are seeking ways to ensure students have access to adults who are invested in their future, ones whom can inspire, mentor and encourage them in STEM fields. Leading the charge is Million Women Mentors (MWM). A collaboration of more than 58 partners with more than 350,000 pledges to mentor girls and women in STEM entered to date. This effort would reach more than 30 million girls nationally. This is a good start, however, if we are to change the systemic lack of diversity and support for women and underrepresented minorities in the STEM professions more needs to done—and quickly.
Mentorship programs are critical but they start and end with individuals. It’s that simple and therefore that easy for each of us to play a role whether formal or informal, in a young person’s life. So to any young women considering marine biology, I say, stay the course. Check out the Gills Club and find a mentor who can make sure you stay “in the swim” to an incredible professional career in science and beyond.
Jacqui Lipson is a Vice President at Widmeyer Communications. Widmeyer Communications, a Finn Partners company, is the nation’s oldest communications firm with a dedicated PreK-12 education practice. We now have more than 25 years’ experience working in education public policy, advocacy and marketing communications. Widmeyer Communications possesses a deep understanding of the critical issues the field faces, and what it will take for all children to reach their potential in a public education system. We partner with philanthropies, nonprofit organizations, associations, corporations and local, state and federal government entities to craft and deliver education messages and communication strategies that advance our clients’ ideas and agendas and help them achieve results. For more information, visit www.widmeyer.com.