For a profession to replicate itself, there must be a norm. When men consider a career in science today, they see a profession full of men. That is the norm. Despite the great strides of the women’s movement, today there are so few women in STEM that when a young women considers a STEM field for a career she sees only exceptions, and usually outstanding ones who are setting a very high bar. While these exceptional role models are necessary they are not sufficient. Young women considering careers need to see both exceptional (inspirational) and attainable examples of success. Without both forms of role models, young women are turning away from careers in science and technology despite the many programs and initiatives encouraging those careers.
When I look around, I find myself surrounded at times by women working in science and girls studying science. I can safely say that some of my best friends are women scientists. But they are the exception (and usually exceptional). One friend’s daughter just won a prestigious Intel Science Fair award and one of my own daughters is studying for her bachelor’s degree in physics. But they are exceptions.
There is a good chance that my friend’s daughter may leave science. There is a good chance that my daughter may leave physics. Why? They don’t see where they fit or where these professions will take them. We need to help these young women stay in science so that we will create a world where professional women scientists are the norm rather than the exception.
To do this, we must move beyond educational campaigns and encouragement. It is not enough to get out the message. We must also demonstrate that a science and technology career awaits these young women. To do this, today’s men and women professional scientists must actively reach out to young female students. They must leave their offices and go to the universities in person and talk to students. Their companies must create large numbers of stipend-supported internships with organized programs so that women students can see the career opportunities in science and experience the work first-hand. Today’s young women will realize that there is a place for them as science and technology professionals. They will become tomorrow’s role models. We will no longer ask, Where are the women? The women will be there.