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The CataLyst: The Myth About Maths

Last year the Institute For Fiscal Studies published a report stating that children who are good at maths at the age of 10 will go on to earn 7% more at 30 than an “otherwise identical” child. It’s worrying then, with the already existing salary gap, that girls are trailing behind boys in maths in many developed countries. The latest results from the OECD Pisa Test show that in most countries girls underperform boys in mathematics; among the highest-achieving students, the gender gap in favour of boys is even wider.

Nature vs. Nurture
But boys are not innately better at maths than girls right? For a long time, the performance gap in maths between boys and girls was explained using nature and biology. Boys were more logical, and girls more creative. Recently though, more and more research supports the nurture over nature argument. If this is true (which I think it is), it’s really scary that according to code.org, the cultural side is getting worse. The numbers are terrifying and fewer girls are doing maths, physics and computer subjects at school here in the UK.

Last year, the UK education minister Liz Truss, said the gender gap is a result of girls’ lack of confidence in themselves. This makes me think sometimes even the best role models cannot counteract the societal and cultural pressures faced by girls. There may be a clear link between confidence and performance, but despite the bleak figures there is hope.

Social Equality and Equality in STEM
If we look at the figures on a global scale, the maths gender gap in certain countries is almost non-existent. These are the countries that also happen to offer more equal opportunities and resources to men and women. The general correlation has been found that in more equitable societies, the STEM gender gap is significantly reduced. In countries like Iceland, Sweden and Norway the results from various tests show no difference in how girls and boys perform, whereas in countries like Turkey and even the UK, girls scored on average 23 and 14 points less than boys respectively.

I know that here in the UK, we like to think of ourselves as forward thinking, equal and progressive – and to a certain extent we are – but the numbers speak for themselves. Girls are not worse than boys at STEM subjects, but it’s difficult to be the first girl doing a Physics A-Level if none of your girlfriends are. It can’t be down to the individual alone to change the view of society. Although young girls all over the country and the world are already going against the trend, something needs to happen on a larger scale.

The way we view girls in media influences the way girls look at themselves.

We have to ask ourselves what can by done by government, locally in our communities, through schools and parenting, as well as on social media to change the culture and perceptions of girls in STEM. Only then will we be able to offer equal opportunities and give girls the chance to prove gender doesn’t matter.

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The CataLyst: Let’s Talk About Role Models

First, I’d like to thank everyone for the warm reception of my first post on STEMinist. I’m very excited to be here and hope to grow with this column and everyone who reads it, gaining new experiences and perspectives along the way. In this post I want to expand a bit on role models and what I mentioned briefly last time:

You can’t be what you can’t see.

To do that, however, I feel I should tell you a bit about my journey to where I am today.

The First Type of Role Model: Awakening Interest
I was always a good student and enjoyed studying. There were no subjects I found particularly difficult, but there were those I enjoyed more than others. In secondary school a new teacher really opened my eyes to maths and science. This teacher was enthusiastic, explained things well, listened to students and was never condescending in how he treated people of different ability levels. During the three years he taught my class, everyone wanted to do well in maths and science; everyone wanted to earn his respect. I knew a lot of my classmates had never enjoyed maths and science before, but now made an effort and thought it was fun to go to those classes. This is the first type of role model, the one that gets a child’s attention, awakens an interest and keeps it.

The Second Type of Role Model: Nurturing Potential
In high school/A-levels I continued my focus on maths and science. I studied in the IB (International Baccalaureate) and chose to do Maths, Physics and Chemistry more in-depth. Here again, I was influenced by three fantastic teachers. My chemistry teacher was a woman in her 60’s and had taught chemistry her entire career. Her experiments in class always failed, but her teaching was structured and guiding. When I struggled, she listened and helped, not letting me resign to ‘I don’t understand‘. She pushed me to get a higher grade than I originally thought I could achieve, and wrote a fantastic personal reference for my university application. This is the second type of role model, the one who sees potential and nurtures it into something more.

The Third Type of Role Model: “I want to be like her”
Starting university was a shock, not only culturally (I moved to a new country) but in the way teaching was structured.  It opened my eyes to just how much ‘man’ was around me. My first two years studying Chemical Engineering, I spent a lot of time questioning whether I had actually made the right choice. Two things made me stick with it (besides stubbornness):

  1. The first was a lecturer who taught some of our classes from the third year onward. This was the first time I’d seen a woman doing what I wanted to do. Not only was she inspiring just by being there, she was also approachable, helpful and understanding. More importantly, she didn’t compromise just because she was a woman. She became my personal mentor and no matter what doubts and questions I had, she seemed to have an answer, because she had been there herself. This is the third type of role model, the one you can directly identify with and say, “I want to be like her.”
  2. The other thing that made me stick with Chemical Engineering leads me to where I am today. I took a year off of university before my final year and worked in an engineering consultancy office for 13 months. This office showed me a mix of 50/50 men and women working together as engineers. Yes, there were issues, and yes there was a vague air of the old boys’ club that sometimes surfaced, but it was a change from university. These women spoke up when they felt things were unfair, and I went back to finish my degree with a different mentality as a result.

Searching for the Next Role Model
Today, I find myself surrounded by colleagues from a wide range of backgrounds, but what I don’t see is that next stage of Role Model to look up to. There are few senior female engineers and even fewer women in senior management.

To a certain extent, “You can’t be what you can’t see,” rings very true during the early years that shape our choices in life. I wouldn’t have ended up where I am today without a lot of guidance and inspiration along the way. But now that I’m here, and know exactly what’s missing, it’s my job to fill that role.

Whatever stage we are in our careers as women in STEM, we have to pave the way to make it easier for future generations of girls to get to where we are. At every fork in the road, when I personally chose to stay in STEM, I know others didn’t because they lacked the right role models.

What inspired you to stay in STEM, and what can we do to make choosing STEM easier for every girl who’s questioning it today?

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STEMinist Profile: Barbara A. Res, Professsional Engineer

barbara

Barbara A. Res

Professsional Engineer

Res Construction Services LLC



What inspired you to pursue a career in STEM?
My guidance counselors told me to be a Math teacher because I had the highest math grades in my high school. I did not hear the word engineer once. I entered school as a poli sci major but fortunately my school had an engineering program and I was challenged to study it by some of the male students. Since I liked electricity in physics, I decided to pursue Electrical Engineering and I ended up working in construction.

What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
My coolest assignment was being in charge of construction of the Trump Tower on 5th Avenue in New York City. By the time I went to work for Trump, I had been an assistant project manager, draftsperson, Mechanical Superintendent and Superintendent on various construction projects. I had a complete knowledge of all trades and was adept at management.

On Trump Tower, I got to build a complicated building and work with the celebrities who bought apartments. We put a swimming pool in one apartment on the 65th floor. The design challenges were illuminating and the personalities intriguing.

Role models and heroes:
Gloria Steinem is a hero. Unfortunately, because of the occupation I chose, there were no female role models. I had some men who were mentors. Think what you will, Donald Trump and his wife Ivana were my biggest promoters and he gave me unbelievable opportunities.

Why do you loving working in STEM?
Construction is the most exciting business because it provides instant gratification. You can point to a building and say, I played a part in creating that. People see your work. I am particularly honored to have my name inscribed on a building I supervised at 667 Madison Ave in NYC.

Construction is challenging and never boring. Every day is different with new problems to solve.

Advice for future STEMinists?
Believe in yourself and your choices. You define the work you do, not the other way around. Don’t let anyone challenge your reasons for becoming an engineer. Don’t stand for harassment and intimidation. You have to pick your spots, and be a bit thick skinned, but any serious action must be reported.

Work very hard. Probably you will work harder than the men. I did. But you don’t have to, just do your best.

Find other women to work with and befriend, even if they are competition. Find a mentor and look for younger women you can help.

Favorite website or app: www.msmagazine.com

Twitter: @Barbararesesq
Site: www.constructionwoman.net

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Introducing “The CataLyst,” a column about women in STEM

When I started my undergraduate course in Chemical Engineering back in 2005, it hit me almost immediately that the distribution of men to women was about 80/20. I have to admit I’d never reflected much on gender equality before. Having grown up in Sweden (one of the most gender equal countries in the world1), inequality had never affected me much. With the exception of the ever present media biases and “boys will be boys” attitudes, I have had a lucky escape.

Entering the workplace a couple of years later (the same place I still work today), I was again very lucky. My colleagues couldn’t have been more diverse (gender and ethnicity) if you’d blindly picked them from each corner of the world. As a result, the inequalities I’ve come to know are through working away from home and the stories told by my friends, colleagues, online communities and the media. It’s been a wake-up call, and I’m slowly realising that even in the most diverse offices of the most diverse and progressive companies, us women have something working against us: the gender roles that are placed on us by society.

In the Western world today, women still only represent 24% of the STEM workforce2 and the women who work in these fields still earn overall a third less than men, at all income levels3. Why is it that the dropout rate for STEM subjects in school rise rapidly among girls when they enter secondary school? And at university, how come certain STEM orientated courses still see zero uptake of female students?

In the film Miss Representation from 20114, Marie Wilson, the founder and president emeritus of the White House Project5 said, “You can’t be what you can’t see,” and although she was referring to how women are represented in media, this rings true for STEM as well. There aren’t enough female STEM leaders, managers and role models for girls at school to look up to and identify with when they’re making their choices about what they want to be when they grow up. This makes it all the more important for those of us who do work in these fields to be vocal and a stronger force for change.

Through this blog I want to be one of those voices, talking about the ups and downs of working in such a male dominated industry. I will write about the issues we face on a day to day basis, try and shed a bit more light on the problems but also help form part of the solutions. Being more vocal means standing up to inequality, speaking my mind and showing an example where women don’t have to just accept the situations and circumstances in which we find ourselves.

Working towards making STEM more attractive to young girls by breaking down boundaries and misconceptions is beneficial to future generations of women as well as the industry as a whole. I hope this blog will generate some interesting discussions and viewpoints, and I welcome you all to get involved.

Cata

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STEMinist Profile: Gina Trapani, Co-founder and CTO of ThinkUp

Gina Trapani

Co-founder and CTO of ThinkUp

ThinkUp, http://thinkup.com

 



What inspired you to pursue a career in STEM?
As a kid, I was shy and socially awkward, but very curious about figuring new things out. When my Dad brought home my family’s first computer I spent as many hours on it as I could, tinkering, playing games, writing BASIC. Later in life, I didn’t have a definitive moment where I made a conscious decision to pursue a career in STEM. But when I graduated, the dot-com boom was in full force and developer (particular web developer) jobs were everywhere. I was obsessed with the web, and programming was something I loved and was good at, so it just seemed natural to get onto that track.

What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
ThinkUp (http://thinkup.com) is a social media insights app I started building a few years ago, which I’m creating a company around right now. It’s the coolest project I’ve ever worked on because I’ve learned so much from dozens of open source volunteers from all over the world who have contributed code, filed issues, debated on the mailing list, and installed the app on their own servers. It started out as a very small-scope idea, and thanks to my cofounder and the community, it has blossomed into a pluggable platform that generates insights for any social media source, from Facebook to Twitter to Foursquare, YouTube, and Instagram. ThinkUp’s open source community has welcomed and mentored young coders and converted them into passionate, knowledge OSS contributors. I love being involved in something that helps people learn and grow through building software.

Role models and heroes:
Even the most heroic people are flawed, so I tend to not admire individuals as much as their work. That said, my role models are usually people who have redefined their jobs or industries, produced great works, endured extreme hardship, or all of the above. A few names that come to mind: Amelia Earhart, Eleanor Roosevelt, Alan Turing, Emily Dickinson, my grandmother.

Why do you loving working in STEM?
The possibilities. At this point in history, it feels like the possibilities of technology are limitless.

Advice for future STEMinists?
Don’t overthink things. Just follow your gut and do it.

Favorite website or app: The web!

Twitter: @ginatrapani

Site: ginatrapani.org

Blog

STEMinist Profile: Irish Perez, Co-founder, Lead Online Business Developer

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Irish Perez

Co-founder, Lead Online Business Developer

Nerover

 

 



What inspired you to pursue a career in STEM?
Ever since I can remember, I have loved to design and draw anything from the scratch. I even have my own collection of comic books. My passion of designing and writing is always the main factor why I pursue my career online. Whenever people out of nowhere will encourage me or adore me just because of the blog I am writing or some designs that I have been playing, it pushes me further and let me think “Hey! I can do it also and I am good at it!” That magic feeling of satisfaction.

What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
The coolest project is the startup I co-founded, Nerover. It allows me to use my skills on talking with a large group of people, encouraging, doing sales talk while I can play with the designs of features and interface online. What is more cool is that I don’t only focus on one niche but as a startup I was able to converse with different types of group of people. That teaches me a lot of facts and adaptability techniques.

Role models and heroes:
I found it funny whom I adore: Courage the cowardly dog. Courage is always afraid of everything but in the end he will be the one who will have a solution for any mishaps happening. These always remind me that its okay to be afraid; it’s part of the experience but make sure at the end you have a solution to conquer your fear. 😉

Why do you loving working in STEM?
Why do I love it? Because it is very exciting every day! Every day, it’s a different situation. On a daily basis I get some problems to solve, goals to achieve – it is always different from one another. I mean, compared to an office work where you have to do one work for how many years, working in STEM will not bore you. There’s no dull moment and there’s a lot of things you can learn. It’s like a school every day.

Advice for future STEMinists?
Don’t stop learning and do the things that you love. It may be cliche but it really works. Even when you are working on different things and working the job that you don’t want, there will always be a way to include your craft on it and put your character on it every time.

Favorite website or app:
My favorite website is Udemy, they have a lot of free online courses and inspiring stories that push me as well every day.

Twitter: @irishjoy_s

Site: http://irish19.blogspot.ae/

Blog

STEMinist Profile: Anna Sutton Stinson, Project Geologist

Anna Sutton Stinson

Project Geologist

Stantec


What inspired you to pursue a career in STEM?
I always had fairly broad interests as a child. My mother is an artist and my father is an English professor, but both of them had broad interests as well, including farming and horses to chemistry, woodworking, and music. I loved science fiction and cosmology always fascinated me, and in high school I wanted to major in planetary science. I ended up majoring in astronomy and minoring in geology, but after I discovered geology included camping trips to beautiful places, I switched my major to geology and stuck with it. Developing the skills to observe the natural world and be able to put together a story about how it came to be that way is very satisfying to me.

What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
I now work in environmental consulting, investigating and re-mediating petroleum and hazardous materials spills. My company says I assist our clients to comply with governmental regulations and best business practices. My drillers say I put dirt in jars. I also sometimes put groundwater and air in jars. The jars are then sent to laboratories for analysis, we interpret what contaminants are where and how they are moving and changing, and then we plan how to best limit risks to human health and the environment.

The coolest project I have worked on was doing environmental investigations at a large oil refinery. Ninety years of spills, leaks, and explosions made for lots of soil and groundwater contamination to hunt down and fix. Working at the refinery required very specific health and safety training, an FBI background check, and you had to wear fire resistant coveralls and a hydrogen sulfide gas meter.

Hydrogen sulfide gas can kill quickly, so we were trained to drop everything and run cross-wind and then up-wind if the alarm ever went off. Luckily, I never had to put that into practice. The refinery was a fascinating place to work, it was like its own small city, and there were always lots of big machinery and vehicles rumbling around through the tank farms and flare stacks.

Role models and heroes:
Sally Ride, Marie Curie, Ada Lovelace, Florence Nightingale, Hildegard von Bingen, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin Shelley.

Why do you loving working in STEM?
I love working in STEM because it is an opportunity to seek out unfamiliar situations and really challenge myself or push my limits.

Advice for future STEMinists?
Don’t be afraid to question and challenge gender stereotypes, even the tiniest ones. Often they are perpetuated simply because no one asks “why?” or “why not?”. Don’t let others define you, do what you enjoy and be yourself.

Favorite website or app:
http://rumsey.mapranksearch.com/ Check out some old maps!

Twitter: @annasutton