When I was a kid, I was in Girl Guides. One unforgettable thing I learned at Girl Guide camp when I was ten was a lesson from my leader about why we stay on the path during a hike. She told us that it only takes ten people to walk on a patch of the forest before the foliage there starts to thin out. Now, my leader meant this in a forest-conservation kind of way; but a recent experience made me think of this lesson in a whole new light...
During my reading week this fall, I volunteered with the Carleton Chapter of Engineers Without Borders (EWB) at a career convention for eighth graders in the city. The convention was meant to give these students an opportunity to learn about different career paths and meet professionals in these fields. At this convention, I was manning (ironic word choice, I know) an info table on EWB with another girl from our Carleton Chapter. Our table happened to be located next to one on masonry, which had an interactive area where students could try their hand at building part of a wall with some bricks and mortar. The girl I was with is an engineering student, but she always loved the trades and working with her hands. She enthusiastically went over to the next table and joined the brick-laying lesson. What happened next made me smile! The masonry booth had been occupied mostly by groups of boys all day. But, as my fellow EWBer scraped around mortar and laid bricks, a few eighth grade girls came over and joined her, and then a few more. These girls seemed much less timid and self-conscious, and more engaged in the lesson than any of the previous solitary girls who had tried the booth earlier that day. All it took was one other girl there, one other person like them to make the girls realize that they could do masonry too, that working with your hands isn't just for boys!
I know masonry isn't STEM, but the trades are male-dominated fields, just like Science and Engineering. And here is where the forest lesson comes in: Each one of you, a woman in Science and Engineering, can play the same role for young women interested in STEM as my EWBer friend! You would be taking a step off the path into the forest and treading into the foliage! With every woman who does what she loves and pursues a career in STEM, the foliage thins out just a little bit more. With time, the new path becomes easier to find and follow for the next girl. You are one more female face in an engineering class that stops the next girl from thinking "I'm not a boy. I don't belong here". You are the successful older student or prominent figure in your field that reminds those girls in the initial struggles of Science and Engineering that "I can do this!"
In my Psychology class last year, I learned about how stereotype threat (the fear that if you fail, other people will say you failed because you are part of some minority or social group) can actually make people perform worse and fail more often. It has been said for years that women are not as smart as men and worse at math. This is not true, of course, but it can still trigger stereotype threat in girls and women in STEM; they worry that their failure will be attributed to them being a "dumb girl". Yet, every example they have that contradicts the stereotype, makes the stereotype threat diminish more and more. Every one of you is making that girl less and less afraid of being herself, and less scared of failing.
That's part of the reason I love Science! It lets me be a role model and encourage tones of young girls to pursue their love for STEM. And this is simply achieved by doing what I love and find SO interesting.
So stay inspiring ladies and keep treading that widening path through the forest!!!
Sarah is in her second year of Neuroscience combined honors at Carleton. She loves introducing young minds to the mind-blowing amazingness of science and encouraging girls and women to be whatever they want to be.