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'Mama, don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboys,' but encourage your girl babies to be engineers

Flaura Koplin Winston, M.D., PhD, Healthy Kids

Updated: Tuesday, December 9, 2014, 5:30 AM

Teenage girl adding something to her mixture.

I was so excited to hear about the new action figures and toys that are on the market that appeal to the hidden engineer/inventor/scientist in our daughters. You have GoldieBlox, Superstruct Pinklets, pink Mega Bloks, Roominate, and there’s a robot- themed Lottie doll with a robot accessory!

As a young girl, there were no “girl toys” that appealed to me – a budding engineer and doctor. Luckily, I was not a statistic. Despite the stigma and stereotypes about girls and math, I persisted. This is in large part due to my parents who didn’t ascribe to the pervasive belief “don’t let your girl babies grow up to be engineers.”

In the past few years, I have heard startling and sad statistics about female representation in science, engineering and mathematics. “Despite decades of government, university, and employer efforts to close the gender gap in engineering, women engineers make up only 11 percent of practicing engineers in the United States,” according to the National Academies. What a shame!

As a mother and a pediatrician, I see the issues that face families in ensuring the health and safety of their children. As an engineer, I have the tools to invent solutions or to work with those who can. By not encouraging women to be part of the innovation ecosystem, we are missing out on tapping into this large segment of our country’s potential for solving problems.

What are the roots of this gap? Much has been written on the topic, including stereotypes, myths, norms and more. The National Science Foundation recently released an interesting report countering myths regarding women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). I summarized and adapted this excellent content to make sure parents were aware of their own biases and how they might be propagating these myths.

1. Myth: From the time they start school, girls are less interested than boys in science.

Reality: The majority of girls and boys start elementary school with similar positive attitudes about science. The culture around STEM is what turns the girls off as they get older. At the Center for Injury Research and Prevention at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, we’re doing our part to prove this myth wrong - our large student program recruits the best trainees and we make every effort to ensure that women are well-represented. These women are inspirational – interested, motivated, talented and smart – and all have gone on to STEM careers and/or to obtain advanced STEM degrees. (Click here for more on our training program and how you can support it.

2. Myth: Classroom interventions that work to increase girls' interest in STEM run the risk of turning off the boys.

Reality: In fact, teaching STEM in ways that increase and sustain the interest of girls also increases the interest of boys. Good math and science teachers know that inquiry-based and hands-on learning is what works best for science and math. (Recall that we are lagging many countries in boys going into STEM, too.)

3. Myth: Science and math teachers are no longer biased toward their male students.

Reality: In fact, starting in grade school and going all the way through hiring, promotion and tenure practices, biases exist. Teachers interact and call on boys more in science and math. More men than women are promoted in academic STEM positions, even when controlling for research productivity. Women continue to be paid less than their male counterparts in STEM. We have NOT solved the bias problem (although we are trying).

4. Myth: When girls just aren't interested in science, parents can't do much to motivate them.

Reality: Parents are crucial to girls’ interest in STEM. To start with, parents should NOT discourage their interested daughters from going into STEM. For the girls who are just not aware of STEM, expose them. Take them to science museums, think about the toys and games that you are buying them, and introduce them to women who are in these important professions. Most importantly, make sure that their schools are mentoring them well in terms of coursework, career path and extra support.

5. Myth: At the college level, changing the STEM curriculum runs the risk of watering down important "sink or swim" coursework.

Reality: I recall the “weeding out” process in my early engineering courses. This happens in all disciplines, but the resultant “drop out” effect is stronger among women in STEM majors. This is NOT because women are failing, but simply because of the high standards women tend to set for themselves. Women often perceive B’s as inadequate grades and drop out while men with C’s will persist. Also, women work better in teams while men are more comfortable working alone. Recognize these facts in your daughters and help them to find the right mentoring and support that they (and all students) need to be successful.

So, Mom and Dad – encourage your girl babies to grow up to be engineers and mathematicians and scientists and inventors. You will be so proud of what they can accomplish!

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Flaura Koplin Winston, M.D., PhD, Healthy Kids

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