Becoming a Woman in STEM
I didn’t start liking science until I was 30. A bit of a late bloomer. I was that girl in secondary school who spent her classes writing letters to her friends, bemoaning how boring science was. Skip 8 years down the road and I was a French immersion teacher going overseas and needed to find a new niche in teaching. I dabbled in English but everyone was doing that, and I didn’t want to be competing against all those type-A English teachers. I felt like I was too ‘out of the box’ for the rules of English – I mean, there are a lot of them. I spent so much time being bored learning the rules of French, I didn’t want to spend another decade drilling the English ones (side note: I love teaching English, but this isn't the blog for that!). But science, it intrigued me – the projects, the materials, the potential to blow things up – so I found a new love.
As many of us do, I went back to school to get my Masters. I have to admit, I felt a little embarrassed about my excitement because it seemed that my colleagues had all been practically born scientists, and here I was amazed at the results of experiments about how hot and cold water circulates. I started reading a lot about the gender gap in science, not only in teaching but in STEM in general. I was shocked - but not shocked, if you know what I mean. How could there still be such inequalities, even though I felt like we'd moved forward as a society (well, we have, a bit, but not far enough!)? I have always been a feminist: as I child I was the first alter girl in my Catholic Church, after lobbying the Church board to let me stand next to the priest holding those biscuits because “girls should be allowed to do it too!”. In high school, I wrote for a story competition about a strong independent woman who took on the wild west by wearing *gasp* trousers and raising her own farm after her husband had to leave (I got 2nd place because my opening line was "As the sun rose in the west.." - I was obviously not born a scientist). It was a total girl power story, for a girl who grew up loving the Spice Girls. Yes, I know that feminism is much more than that, but my point is that I’ve been ‘growing’ it for a while.
I realised that the traditional views of women in science hadn’t changed much in the years since I had left secondary school. Still straight, white men. Even today, in 2019, we women still lag severely behind men in STEM jobs.
If you Google "Women in STEM jobs", there are millions of pages that talk about this, but there are less of us entering into post-secondary institutions to earn degrees in STEM, we earn less money in jobs (if we even get that far), and there are in even fewer of us in positions of leadership. And don’t even get me started on the statistics for women of colour – they’re abysmal. Why is this?
I think the reasons are many and complicated because we all have our own journey through what prevented us from being involved in the sciences. A lack of role models, negative stereotypes, sexism, and a general lack of encouragement are a few. For me, it was a complete lack of interest and engagement as a student. I don’t remember ever doing experiments in school (sorry to my teachers if we had!) and it was considered a ‘boy’ thing – even in 2002, when I graduated high school. As much as there has been a concerted effort to change that, I believe that the paradigm shift has to come from us as women ourselves. Especially teachers (okay, I’m biased in my belief about the influence of teachers, so bear with me).
Our beliefs about ourselves and our abilities start quite young and teachers are key in shaping young girls into future STEM leaders. Here in China, where I teach, girls are still locked in the traditional roles of what it means to be a girl and ultimately, a woman. As a teacher, I am always on the lookout for this and try my best to provide opportunities for my students to try out ‘boy’ things. I set up different clubs – robotics and coding - and encourage girls to sign up. I got some kick back at one point because some parents felt I was being exclusive to their boys but thankfully my school backed me up. I run Science Fairs and I always feature scientists that are female or of colour – or both.There is so much research that shows that girls won’t even attempt certain new activities because they have been pre-programmed (pun intended) to believe that only boys should be doing it or they cannot visualise themselves in these roles. As a teacher and woman in STEM, I want our girls and our boys to be overloaded with these ideas of women doing the jobs a man is ‘supposed’ to do. I want little girls to be able to see themselves as those characters in The Big Bang Theory and when they watch it, they understand what is going on (and don’t have to wait until they are 32 like I did!).
This all leads to this blog. I want to help amplify the roles of Women in STEM and the amazing work that is being done. Something I haven't mentioned yet, but for me falls under the umbrella of STEM, are the Sustainability Development Goals (SDGs) of the UN. I believe that STEM and the SDGs are the future of education. Our young women need role models in these areas who are passionate, to inspire them to solve the world's problems and to build the empathy needed to fuel them. I’ve only recently joined the Twitterverse (follow me @TIAscience) and have met so many amazing women who are striving to do this and that should be celebrated. I’m not entirely sure how this blog will evolve, but what I do know is that I will be sharing whatever feels right, to help uplift other women and influence some positive change. And have some fun in the process because a laugh or smile will always bring people together, right? So, if you have any questions or things you’d like to share, please contact me. I’m always looking for something(or one!) new and interesting to engage with!
STEM Editor, Tia Luker-Putra
Tia is a Canadian high school French language turned elementary science teacher of 13 years, living in Shanghai, China. She is passionate about working with teachers and students to help improve curriculum, especially science. She also has a love for the Sustainability Development Goals of the UN and teaching students about them. She believe it is important to develop empathy in students and connect them with the world around them, and solving the world's biggest problems is a great way to do it! Tia loves to travel, be outside, share her experiences on Twitter, and hang out with her wife and their cat, Kimchi.
Contact Tia about a STEM blog you'd like to write - firstname.lastname@example.org