Women in STEM, Where We Started and Where We Are Today

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Celebrating the Trailblazers of International Women's Day By Dr. Erika Ebbel Angle, CEO and co-founder, Ixcela

50 years ago, few women pursued degrees and careers in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM). The challenges these women faced were complex and ranged from general gender bias to a widespread belief from male counterparts regarding their ability to “handle” both the content and the stamina to pursue academic and industry jobs. The glass ceiling was ever prevalent as a reminder of one’s “limitations.” However, despite these challenges, many still succeeded in breaking through because of their drive and perseverance; a willingness to push back against stereotypes and societally imposed barriers. We find these women in positions of leadership today who speak of their hardships. They are our trailblazers. We celebrate them on International Women’s Day!

In the last several decades, opportunities for women have definitely increased and improved. They could (of course) always be better, but progress is being made in leaps and bounds. When one Googles “Women in STEM” countless articles, blogs and websites appear celebrating the accomplishments of women in (to name a few areas) Engineering, Medicine, Technology, Education, Chemistry, Physics, Science Research, Zoology, and Marine Biology. The accomplishments of women are being recognized and celebrated at noteworthy awards ceremonies worldwide. It is no longer uncommon to see NASA Astronaut and woman in the same sentence. Employers have started making work schedules more flexible for women (and also men) who have family commitments. For those of us who were educated in the last 20-30 years, we have taken up the baton from our pioneering counterparts to help move the bar forward, showing the next generation of youth that they CAN successfully pursue degrees in STEM. We celebrate ourselves and our fellow colleagues on International Women’s Day!

As we look forward, we must continue to push young women in STEM, but it is time to shift our approach.  We can do this through the use of female role models, which are plentiful, and by embracing statistics that show the significant inroads women are making in STEM careers.  We can treat our youth in a gender-neutral fashion in STEM education.  We need now to present to our young women that an interest in STEM is NORMAL; that interest in STEM alone does not make you a trailblazer. To do that, you will have to discover something wonderful and new.  Just like for our male counterparts.

We are not done.  Recent statistics shed light on a worrisome problem. The United States currently ranks 20th in the world with regards to science literacy. Science has become a “politicized” issue in the USA, preventing important topics to be openly discussed with youth. Although STEM jobs are projected to grow at a rate three times as fast as non-STEM jobs, the number of students (especially women) graduating with STEM degrees is not increasing at a rate able to keep up with the projected need.  Fixing this issue is key to long-term national competitiveness.  Time is short.

International Women’s Day is thus a celebration of the women of our past, the women of our present, and the young women who represent our future.

 About the Author: Dr. Erika Ebbel Angle, CEO and co-founder of Ixcela, a biotechnology start-up company, and founder of Science from Scientists (SfS), a program that sends scientists into classrooms to teach engaging lessons to ensure the nation’s youth is competitive globally in STEM fields.  

 

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