Women in STEM: You can be anything and do everything

The STEM field is growing, creating tremendous opportunity for well-trained applicants. While STEM has traditionally been a male-dominated field, cultivating interest at the undergraduate level can help draw in more women who may have the necessary skills but have never considered STEM as a career path. In TBR’s monthly series Women in STEM, we discuss how female leaders have successfully pursued careers in STEM and are encouraging more female representation by passing on the lessons they’ve learned to other women who are pursuing this path.

Stephanie Long headshot

Hi. I am Stephanie Long, a senior analyst at TBR and the author of this blog series. I, like many other women in traditionally male-dominated fields, took a nontraditional path to my current job. I earned a bachelor’s degree in history and a master’s in secondary education from the University of New Hampshire, and I am a certified public school teacher for social studies in grades 5 through 12.

Though I am not currently working in a traditional school system, my passion for educating the future workforce has not slowed — but how I do that has changed. Through my job as a senior analyst, I collaborate with many brilliant men and women, in both mature and emerging markets within the data center space. As I track and notice trends in the strategies and performance of these businesses, I also notice a trend among the people I talk to: They are mostly male.

Girls can do anything boys can do despite societal pressures

I have been asked why I am championing women in STEM through my 2021 blog series — and why now, in 2021. There have been many recent societal changes that have sparked my interest in this endeavor, from the #MeToo movement to the election of the first female vice president of the United States. The reality is that our culture still promotes the falsehood that men are smarter — and as the mother of two toddlers, a daughter and a son, it irks me.

But the final push I needed to actually do something about it came in 2020 at Christmastime. My kids received playful T-shirts as a gift from a relative: My daughter’s read, “Fabulous Like Mommy,” while my son’s read, “Genius Like Dad.” Now, my husband is a biochemist, so yes, he is very smart — but why is clothing for toddlers promoting the idea that a mother’s most important quality is being fabulous? I may not be as intelligent as my biochemist husband, but there is certainly a lot more to me than being fabulous — I have many more important and impactful qualities. And while I wouldn’t call myself a genius, my mind is certainly a more appealing attribute than my fabulousness.

Words have power

The purchaser of these T-shirts simply did what most shoppers do: She saw the two versions, one for boys and one for girls, and inadvertently sent my daughter a message that she is “less than” simply because of her biologically assigned gender. How are these two traits even on the same spectrum, and why are they what society has deemed stereotypically feminine and stereotypically masculine? This is a fundamental issue that we as parents must address. We must teach our daughters that they are smart, too, and that their worth is more than skin deep. Their mind is a valuable asset that will last far longer than their looks.

As a child, I was hammered with these same gender stereotypes. I had big dreams as a little girl. I wanted to be a lawyer and later a scientist. My well-intentioned parents kept sending me the message throughout my youth that I could be anything I wanted to be but that being a lawyer or a scientist wasn’t conducive to being a good mother. (I now know that your job does not determine whether or not you are a good parent — your actions do). By the time I hit middle school, that message was cemented in my mind and I spent more time shopping with my friends at the mall to impress boys than I did on my homework.

I could be anything I wanted to be, but I couldn’t be everything I wanted to be, and therefore something had to give. For me, there was great pressure to forgo a high-brain-power career and settle for something where the hours allowed me to be home more with my future kids, and so I chose the path of a public school teacher. I pursued that path for many years, until a series of very fortunate events and a few very influential men who believed in me showed me that I could do it all and that, no, my kids wouldn’t suffer. I can work in a field that requires a lot of brain power AND be a good parent. The two are not mutually exclusive.

Practice what you preach

This all connects if you have followed me this far to TBR’s Women in STEM blog. The advice I am collecting from these female champions in STEM careers is extremely important and applicable — and it needs to be embraced before the current generation of children are old enough to know the difference. And we as their parents need to fight against the messages society continues to hammer our daughters and sons with.

But it goes even further than this. We as parents need to practice what we preach or our children will not believe us. Actions speak louder than words. But we know through research that in middle school peer influence begins to matter more than parent influence, and this influence disparity only grows with our kids through high school. So, I alone as their mother can only do so much. Society needs to support the change from within, through messaging, advice and mentorship, to uplift all women and remind us, regardless of age, that we are as capable as our male counterparts — in our careers, in our homes and in life.

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