2019 Resolution: Build up girls and women in STEM

Contributed by Ashley Stenzel

I want to address potential for change in 2019 by starting with a story about myself. When I was in high school, I had a math teacher tell me that I was not the ‘type of girl’ who should pursue a career in the sciences or maths. It was hard for me to imagine a future in STEM after that. He had taught me for years, so I felt he would know better than others if I was or was not capable of being in the STEM fields. While I did eventually pursue science and math, it took a long time to gain back the confidence I had lost. I’m not writing this for pity, in fact I am writing this to say that I wish I would have stood up for myself sooner. You see, I eventually went on to receive my master’s degree in science, and then onto a PhD. However, I continue to experience and observe sexism and sexual harassment in STEM academia. It is something as simple as somebody making comments about how unintelligent they think female faculty are, while constantly praising men, and it has been as extreme as a male supervisor backing me into a corner while physically threatening me. It was only recently that I found the confidence to use my voice against this type of behavior. I’m quite sure it isn’t that I am older or wiser, but maybe that I am truly, mentally exhausted from what I hear and see. I’ve seen it happen to other girls and women, I read about it in the news, and I know that this is not the future I want for my daughters or yours. So how do we move forward? 

DO teach girls and boys about the value of women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Tell them about all of the wonderful contributions by women in these fields both in the past and present. Educate them on the oppression of women in the past so that they can understand why it is important to continue moving forward. Make it clear to them that girls are equally capable of being successful in these fields, and that we should be encouraging both boys and girls to participate. Girls should have a welcoming environment and should feel that, beyond education, the workforce is meant for them as well. Remind both girls andboys to speak out and to listen when they see or hear about sexism and harassment. Advocate for girls and women in the STEM education and workplace environments. Boys and men should feel compelled to hold one another accountable for inappropriate behavior towards women. Girls and women should use their voices to not only stand up for themselves, but also for each other. They should be urged to discuss these types of conflicts, so that they can work towards drastically shifting this culture.  

DO NOT teach girls that this is solely their problem. They should know that it is not their fault that boys and men in school and workplaces may treat them lesser or harass them. Help them understand that they can seek out resources, and they can continue to voice their concerns until somebody is willing to listen to them. Provide students and employees with the necessary information to aide them with reporting and addressing unwelcomed behaviors. Welcome conversations with male and female participants to develop more advocates for women in STEM. After all, having men support women in these fields can encourage change through setting an example among other boys and men. Do not ignore or overlook the complaint of the harassed based of the mere fact that more people may be willing to vouch for the accused. People behave differently towards various people. This can be part of why those harassed may wait to come forward, or never come forward entirely.

With the #metoo movement, it appears as though women are feeling more comfortable, and possibly more supported from one another with speaking out against volatile actions and messages delivered to girls and women. It seems Ashley Stenzelthat we are in a time in which people may more closely be listening to the vast concerns around such behaviors. For these reasons, it is important to continue moving forward with collaborations, partnerships, and efforts towards building up girls and women in STEM. Let’s make this our resolution, and let’s make this one stick.

Ashley Stenzel is a PhD candidate in the Cancer Sciences at the University at Buffalo (SUNY). She currently works with organizations to overcome educational barriers in developing countries through sexual/health education to address sexual harassment, sexual assault, teenage pregnancy, and psychosocial aspects. Her goal is to be a strong mentor to girls and women in STEM. She recently published the children’s book The ABCs of Women in STEM.