Feminism 101: Encouraging STEM Careers for Young Women

10 feminists advise on supporting and encouraging young women to pursue their STEM passions
By Avital Norman Nathman  Published on 10/28/2016 at 10:51 AM EDT

Welcome back to Feminism 101, where a fabulous group of phenomenal feminists are here to answer your questions! This week’s question comes from a Grokite interested in finding out about more ways to engage young women with STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics).

Hello my name is Natalia, and I was wondering how a high school student like myself could find out more about how women have been involved in the past in STEM and how to encourage other girls like myself who do not know how the number of women in STEM is still a problem to follow that path if it is what they want to do with their lives.

We asked our favorite feminists how to encourage young women like Natalia to get more involved in the STEM fields!

Patricia Valoy:Natalia — I just want to commend you for asking this question. Seriously, the first step on the path to a career in STEM is to be inquisitive. It is such a great time to be a girl interested in STEM, as I firmly believe that women in STEM are making ourselves heard. We know that historically women have been discouraged or prevented from pursuing STEM fields, so we look to the now and the future for role models. The problem is not just that there are few women in STEM, because in some disciplines (like biology) their numbers surpass men. The real issue is that we have to recognize the positive attributes that women bring to STEM. Follow and support women’s research and their work. It can be as simple as following and sharing vlog and blog posts from women scientists.”

Allison Smartt:My advice to Natalia would be to research and reach out to women in STEM. Interested in engineering? Who are some prominent female engineers and/or engineering professors at your local university or college? Write them and ask to meet and tell you about their career. Women in STEM have been the only woman in the room at one point in their careers and generally like opportunities to reach out and help other women.”

Veronica Arreola:Natalia —  Great news! While we still don’t have as many women as we wish in science and engineering, the numbers continue to get better. Especially in fields like biology. Before 1972 when a federal law called Title IX was passed, there were so few women in medicine, science, and engineering. Fast-forward to 2016 and half of medical students and most veterinarians are women! This is what happens when we remove barriers. I also don’t like to think of it as a problem as much as to consider what science is missing when we don’t have women participating. What questions are not being asked when we don’t have women in the lab? What solutions are not being challenged when women are not in the conversation? My advice is to gather up your science-loving girlfriends and look around your world. What solutions don’t quite fit for women and girls? How would you improve them? And instead of looking for historical women in science to learn about, go out looking for women who are doing science now. Look up your local university and read up on the women doing science there. See if your city has a Society of Women Engineers or Association of Women in Science chapter.  And lastly remember that this journey is not a solo trip. Surround yourself with others, especially women, who will support you, lend you notes, or bring you pizza for late-night studying. Always ask for help, just like you did here. Good luck!”

Meg Galipault:Hey Natalia…Good for you! More women scientists! I recommend looking for a college that has research and scholarship grants from the Clare Boothe Luce programs. Google ‘Clare Boothe Luce Undergraduate Research’ and you’ll find a bunch of different colleges that receive this funding, which supports women in the sciences with tuition scholarships and/or stipends for research projects with faculty. Colleges that receive grant money from the Clare Boothe Luce program have passed the program’s test for providing supportive but rigorous environments for women in STEM. Good luck!”

Natasha Vianna:I’ve always believed that the burden of eradicating the sexism that permeates through STEM fields is not the responsibility of the marginalized. Much of the reason why women are not involved in STEM today has little to do with our own desire and a lot to do with the way we have systemically and culturally been prevented from person who had to change a lot to get to where I wanted to be, waiting for people in power to make the right choices was a risk I didn’t want to take. No one willingly sacrifices power for equality, it must be taken. So my advice for young women is to be the person they needed in their own lives. Believe in yourself, push for growth, be your biggest cheerleader, and dedicate a chunk of time on (at least on a weekly basis) to exploring your own curiosity and creativity.

When I was younger, I joined science clubs, volunteered at organizations, and read a lot about change-making women and their struggles. Like many young people today, I didn’t know what I wanted to do but I did know that STEM was and is a constantly evolving space. I realized it was less about what you know now and more about your desire and strategy for pushing boundaries. In short, what was most important to me was focusing on my passions, measuring every opportunity against my core values, and never forgetting that my layered identity is an asset to any space. Finally, I suggest that we side-eye the people who challenge our dreams, but remember those moments so we can tell our grandkids about our prime years of ass-kicking.”

Amanda Adams:Networking and asking questions is the best way to find mentors who can direct young women through the opportunities available in STEM careers, so you are on the right path!

My 12-year-old daughter is in the 94% in math statewide. She’s always loved building things, so I would think structural or civil engineering might be a better fit for her than computer science, but only she will know what is right for her. Luckily for me I have female friends in that field who could talk to her about their work and friends in medicine and computer science too.

Though STEM is far more than just computer science, the Grace Hopper conference is a good place to start finding women in STEM and thought leaders.”

Naseem Jamnia:As a neuroscientist, some of the best scientists I know are female. The majority of first year biomedical graduate students at UPenn are female — and we’re the norm. Your gender has nothing to do with your abilities as a scientist. This idea that there aren’t women in STEM comes from the older generation of overwhelmingly white, male scientists that are still in academia. But academia isn’t the end of STEM — it’s just the beginning. There’s industry, and start-ups, and governments, and science communication. Yes, there’s no doubt that there needs to be a push for more women (and trans/gender non-conforming/non-binary) scientists, but it’s not so desolate as you might think.

If you’re interested in STEM, discover what you find interesting. Is it the physics of fluids in dialysis? Is it understanding plant immunology? Is it modeling how an object flies? Do lots of reading and find what excites you, and then go after that. Read up on the thing. You don’t need to start formal research right away, and I encourage you to take your time finding what makes you tick instead of forcing yourself to enjoy something. Wait to do research when you start college. And speaking of, check out your local universities/colleges for STEM outreach programs for high school and even elementary schools. For example, at UPenn, we have a group called GLIA in the neurosciences that does a lot of science outreach. Reach out to the professors and graduate students who run those programs and ask for their thoughts. Don’t be afraid — if someone is involved, then they want to hear from you! But more than anything, I can’t stress finding out what excites you enough, and to learn about it in a way that makes sense to you.”

Patchie Dee: Association for Women in Science. Find your local chapter online. They have networking events and lectures and mentors — sort of things women may struggle to find in school or at work when the culture is dominated by boys’ clubs. Aside from that, make friends with other women and non-binary people ALL THE TIME.

Volunteer in a lab or in a museum if you can. Go tutor in previous courses you’ve taken, in most cases you could be paid to do so.

When you find yourself in a position where you can suggest someone to be included or for a position in your group or workplace, remember the co-workers and students you’ve known who were driven. Think of the women or non-binary people you can pull into STEM with you.

I’ve found that labs want to hire people they already know or people someone they respect knows. Every job I ever had in STEM was through a personal connection. I was introduced to principle investigators and hired shortly after, before applying for the job or turning in a resume. This makes it almost impossible for women who are not traditional students to make the connections they need to succeed. They cannot give away their time to make connections. They have to look for work by applying to job postings that are already filled. Remember them. Bring them with you.”

Mayim Bialik:Wow — this topic is sort of what I live and breathe; I love it! There are so many online resources now where young women can learn about the impact of other great women in STEM. Here’s one that the White House has established!

Mentorship programs are critically important; speaking to counselors at your school is one way to see if you can connect with women who work in STEM fields to find out how they got there. Sometimes local colleges or universities will have opportunities to visit and meet some of these women who are living a STEM life.

Books that claim to speak to ‘young women’ are sometimes marketing techniques and don’t really address some of the ‘real’ aspects of STEM that may speak to you, so don’t be seduced by flashy titles of books or even articles. Learning to love STEM comes from applying yourself in the sciences in school, finding opportunities to see the exciting and creative careers you can have in STEM, and staying the course even if you’re not the majority gender! Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls is another site that has been doing great work regarding young women and STEM.”


Do YOU have a question for our cabal of fierce feminists? Email it to Avital Norman Nathman at

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