Why Do Women Matter in Engineering and Science?

White House Science Fair

This week, a group of trailblazing women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) fields met for a roundtable at the White House to share their experiences and encourage young women to follow in their footsteps.

The President has made STEM, and particularly STEM for women, a pet project. Take a look at the White House Science Fair in February, where young women showed off their latest science and engineering inventions, from a machine that detects buried landmines, to a prosthetic hand device, to a lunchbox that uses UV light to kill bacteria on food.

Pretty cool stuff, right? There’s an obvious pool of talent amongst the fairer sex, but why do women remain vastly underrepresented in STEM fields? What can we do about it? Do we need to do anything about it?

“If you completely shut out the entire feminine perspective on the world, you are going to have a different set of products,” says Maria Klawe, president of Harvey Mudd College in California, who attended the White House conference.

Women bring an entirely different perspective to engineering and science, Klawe tells PBS NewsHour. She uses the example of gaming, which she says, has traditionally been a male domain. “Nintendo and Sony have realized that the market for video games has plateaued. And so now they’re going after women and all of a sudden we’re seeing games that are really fun,” Klawe says.

But it’s more than that, “It’s the skills. It’s what kind of user interfaces do we have. It’s what kind of medical devices get created,” Klawe concludes.

So why don’t more young women go into STEM? They think it’s not interesting, they don’t think they’ll be good at it, and they have the image of the people in those fields that they don’t think is attractive, Klawe says.

How do we change that perception? The media plays a big role according to Klawe. Feminizing the way engineering and science is portrayed maybe the solution:

“Back in the ’70s, we started to show doctors and lawyers, where there are women and men who had lives, who fell in love and out of love and had all kinds of problems. And, all of a sudden, we saw the numbers of women going into medicine and into law skyrocketed, and it’s basically 50-50 now,” Klawe says.

Secondly, and more controversially, Klawe thinks that introducing girls to STEM early on is not necessarily going to work. “The problem is, if you do a program at the middle school level, and you get girls interested, they’ve got another four years of high school for peer pressure to get them disinterested again. And it mostly happens.”

So what’s the answer? Catch girls right as they go into college with a mandatory computer science class in the first semester. This, Klawe argues, gets young women at Harvey Mudd College hooked.

Not sure I’m onboard with either of those theories. Do we really need the engineering equivalent of L.A. Law or ER to get young women interested in STEM? And should we wait until college before we begin to engage girls in science and technology?

See recent blog post Geek Chic: Popular Culture Celebrates Smarts for an interesting look at how media changes our perceptions of cool.

Do you believe it’s important to get more women into STEM related fields? How would you achieve it?

Photo Credit: The White House photo gallery

About Nancy Pardo

Nancy Pardo is a Seattle-based writer and editor. She holds an MA in Professional Writing. She began her career as a Washington DC-area reporter, moving on to become an editor and contributor for several top industry magazines in the U.S. and the Middle East. Nancy currently works for PTC as content marketing director and manages the company's award-winning blog Product Lifecycle Stories.
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One Response to Why Do Women Matter in Engineering and Science?

  1. William Rayfield II says:

    Great story Nancy. I will share it with my daughter. She is a math major and Meyerhoff Scholar at UMBC. Butch Rayfield

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