What you say matters: How to encourage women in STEM

What you say matters: How to encourage women in STEM

(Courtesy of Kenny Hoff)

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SALT LAKE CITY — Earlier this year biochemist Tim Hunt made the remarks) that "female scientists should be segregated from male colleagues because women cry when criticized" and that women are a "romantic distraction in the laboratory."

The media backlash was swift and Hunt resigned after a "non-apology." Hunt is not the only individual to make such statements about women in STEM careers and he won't be the last. However, usually the language used to discourage women is subtle and unconscious — and that message does not get the same media attention.

Listed are three ways our language and environment discourages women in their choices and pursuit of STEM education and careers, along with ways to overcome those issues.

Play matters

Recently Target announced that it would be moving away from "gender-based signs" in their toy section. Target recognized, along with others, that toys send messages. The colors, body language, design and more frame, even inadvertently, an acceptable standard of play for what "boys" or "girls" like.

Anne Bastien, manager at the University of Utah's Lassonde Entrepreneur Institute, related an experience where she went into a Toys 'R' Us to buy her young son a Batman costume and wanted to get something for her daughter too. She said there were only princess dresses, so she couldn't find a superhero costume for her daughter. Bastien said innovations in toys and games help "break down narratives" and in a subtle way show girls that they can be superheroes too.

To help, provide girls with the choice to choose whatever toys they want to play with. And if you do have a budding scientist, there are some great toys to encourage that curiosity such as Magformers and LittleBits.

Community speakers stand at an #ilooklikeanengineer event. (Photo: Michelle Glauser)
Community speakers stand at an #ilooklikeanengineer event. (Photo: Michelle Glauser)

Meetings matter

Meetings are a given at a place of work. At meetings, decisions are made and people's reputations can be improved or damaged. Women's communication styles can be different than men. According to a 2012 study out of Brigham Young University and Princeton, women speak significantly less at meetings. However, researchers did find that when the meeting had a "consensus-building" approach with unanimous voting rather than majority rule, women spoke up more.

Having fewer women at the table not only affects people on an individual level, it impacts organizations who lose out on new ideas and different perspectives. All employees should be encouraged to listen more. Companies can learn that majority rule is not always the best way to make decisions.

Language matters

Language matters and it starts at an early age. Kim Jones, the CEO of local digital communications company Vrit noted that "somehow the old stereotypes of girls who bake and boys that engineer still seem to prevail." She said that "if we can start the conversation around STEM early… we can start to shift our thinking." She suggested having "frank discussions around careers that are needed in tech and the above average income" those careers can generate.

Michelle Glauser speaks at an #ilooklikeanengineer event. (Photo: Kenny Hoff)
Michelle Glauser speaks at an #ilooklikeanengineer event. (Photo: Kenny Hoff)

Some of those frank discussions can be for men, both boys and adults, encouraging them to be aware of how they communicate. Even if they feel they are joking, like with Hunt, not everyone is in on the joke.

Reframing how we talk about STEM careers is also important. 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 should rather say "if you want to make a huge impact in the world, become a mechanical engineer and decrease the cost of prosthetics. Or pursue biomedical engineering as a desire to make a difference in people's lives." Focus on the people, not the rocket ship.

Michelle Glauser is an engineer with Zana and an event organizer. She's also the STEM advocate who created a GoFundMe campaign to create a billboard for the #ILookLikeAnEngineer movement. She created the campaign in response to the lack of diversity she found in some of those fields.

Like the campaign, engineers and those in STEM do not look just one way. Girls can be engineers, doctors or whoever they want to be, but we need to recognize our role in making that happen and helping them stay there.

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Carrie Rogers-Whitehead is a senior librarian with Salt Lake County Library and also teaches at Salt Lake Community College. She can be reached at rogers-whitehead@hotmail.com


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