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Why We Must “STEM” the Glass Ceiling

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“Science Careers in Search of Women”, Argonne National Laboratory demonstrates to 350 young women from Chicago-area high schools why a career in science might be right for them.

One of the things that I really strongly believe in is that we need to have more girls interested in math, science, and engineering. Barack Obama, February 2013

Some of you may have read U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s Huffington Post op-ed on the ways gender equality in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields can be achieved. This op-ed, entitled “Increasing STEM Education for Our Nation’s Women” focuses on the rather bleak scene of STEM industries that was underscored by the alarming lack of women pursuing STEM-related careers in the United States. Gillibrand highlights that in order to enhance visibility of women in STEM, societies must make a two-fold investment in mentorship and education. Only through using the vehicles of education and mentorship to “advance the role and exposure of STEM” to women, Gillibrand argues, can “women stop referring to themselves as “the only woman” in their physics lab or only one of two in their computer science jobs.”

The gender gap in STEM does not exist in the United States alone; it affects developed and developing countries alike worldwide. While perusing this article, I was reminded of why we need to inspire women to opt for STEM-related university studies and careers. Most evidently, there’s the simple reason of engendering a culture of gender equality in the workplace; STEM companies have increasingly shifted their focus on promoting gender equality and gender parity in company leadership and employment. More importantly, however, we must think beyond the scope of office gender ratios, and reflect on the economic and innovative effects of empowering women in STEM.

1. Spurring global economic development:

In our data-driven informational world, the future of the global economy pivots on countries’ capacities to out-innovate and out-build. The technological sector, which easily outpaces every other economic sector, has occasioned a host of new industries and jobs that are at the nucleus of the modern economy. For women not to be involved with STEM is short-sighted and self-limiting; it runs the risk of a disproportionately large loss of potential to contribute to the economy. As such, economic stagnation becomes a natural corollary of this exclusion.

2. Increasing productivity across all industries, not just STEM fields:

A STEM education plays a defining role in honing our quantitative, investigative and analytical skills that are crucial to innovation. Even if women were to choose not to opt for professional paths in STEM, being armed with a STEM background will more likely than not encourage thinking outside the box to develop positive, enlightened solutions to the world’s most urgent problems – a process of thought that can extend across industries.

Be it through pharmaceuticals, mobile applications, publications or the Internet, STEM invariably permeates our lives, revolutionizing the way we think and interact on a global level. The STEM infrastructure underpins societal advancement, and encouraging women into STEM fields will ensure that the solutions that are developed cater to a wide range of needs of any society. This then translates to a spillover effect that empowers a variety of communities and industries, to the likely outcome of boosting productivity at a macro level.

3. Encouraging a diversity of ideas:

It is a universally held belief that men and women have different ways of tackling situations, exhibiting dissimilar approaches to problem-solving, learning, communication, among other processes. Some ascribe this to a hardwired difference in male and female cognition, others attribute it to disparities in emotional response. Whatever the case, hardly ever is one way superior to the other; they are simply different. In the male-dominated annals of STEM, having an equal representation of men and women will offer an optimal cross-fertilization between ideas, fresh perspectives, and a wider talent pool. This diversity will naturally give rise to the development of creative, positive solutions and increased innovation in STEM.

The glass ceiling in STEM is still hovering above many women around the world, unscathed, unbroken despite persistent efforts to make it fall. It is our society’s responsibility to extinguish the many roadblocks that thwart women’s advancement in STEM avenues. Only when we can move past these major obstacles and understand fully the importance of harnessing  the power of women, can we know that we’re moving in the right direction, on pace to achieving innovation and empowerment in STEM.

Some organizations that work toward girls’ success in STEM fields include:

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