March 10th, 2015

This month I was invited to be the Keynote Speaker at the Youth in Science, Rapid City STEM conference for middle- and high-school aged girls, encouraging young women to pursue careers in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. This is a hot topic for me. Here’s why.

Let’s start by taking a look at this graph from the US Department of Commerce:


What do you think about this disparity?

While women make up half of the workforce, we still only occupy a quarter of all STEM jobs. Why do you suppose that is?

In my personal experience, it has a lot to do with how our society still views women and their role within said society. While the collective “we” have made great strides toward gender and workforce equality, a disparity still clearly exists. So, as a woman in science who has faced my fair share of educational, workforce, and societal challenges, I not only feel obligated to speak to this topic, but also honored to be in a position to be able to do so.

When I was a young and impressionable youth, I expressed an interest in doing exactly what I do today. Unfortunately, I (temporarily) became a victim of “the establishment” when one of my elementary school teachers told me that my dream of doing what I love and becoming a woman in science was unrealistic. She basically told me that, not only would I never get hired and never make money and would always be broke, but that by pursuing my dream career, I would also become an “old maid”; that I could never “find a man”, or have a family. What man could ever want a woman so intelligent and independent?

Wow. As backwards as this line of thinking sounds now, it was my real life experience. Today, I happen to know for a fact that any man whom I would find remotely interesting is the type of man who is ONLY attracted to smart, independent women. And there are MANY men like that out there, if not most of them. So that theory is totally blown out of the water.

More importantly, of course, was her assertion that I could never make a living with a career in science. To the contrary, our society and our economy absolutely depend on women thriving in the sciences. As half of the workforce, we surely have much to offer!

Fortunately for me, I realized that I COULD achieve my dreams, no thanks to her. And that is exactly what I did. Many thanks to the wonderful people along the way who DID support my dreams, and helped make it possible for me to be a positive role model to other young girls, who, like myself at a young age, may be bombarded with negativity, or lack immediate access to supportive resources, or simply need a little bit of encouragement to go out on a limb and take a chance. Luckily for them, they now have the strength of our entire nation behind them. And the news keeps getting better.

According to the White House Office of Science and Technology,

“Women in STEM jobs earn 33 percent more than those in non-STEM occupations and experience a smaller wage gap relative to men. And STEM careers offer women the opportunity to engage in some of the most exciting realms of discovery and technological innovation. Increasing opportunities for women in these fields is an important step towards realizing greater economic success and equality for women across the board.”

“One of the things that I really strongly believe in is that we need to have more girls interested in math, science, and engineering. We’ve got half the population that is way underrepresented in those fields and that means that we’ve got a whole bunch of talent…not being encouraged the way they need to.”

— President Barack Obama, February 2013

When I speak to this topic, it’s not just about raising awareness around gender and workforce equality for women. It’s not just about ways to achieve economic stability, or strides in technology growth for our nation. It’s about remembering that we, whomever we may be today, or dream of becoming tomorrow, are capable of realizing any and every dream we dream.

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