Ladies, We Have A Visibility Problem

Last week was a busy week for me. I presented two breakout sessions at the ND STEM Strategies Conference in West Fargo and had an amazing time with the forward thinking teachers in our region.

But I was struck, absolutely stopped in my tracks, by the realization of how little we (as in the Ladies) are visible mentors and role models for our daughters in the science and tech industries.

I’m actually not surprised. I knew this. I’ve seen the statistics. I’ve been the only girl in a room of web designers. I’ve stood in front of a room full of science and math teachers and saw only a few women. What got me so emotional?

Gwen Shuster-Hanes. I met Gwen and she turned my life upside down.

Gwen is a teacher from Colorado. She facilitated a breakout session titled “Recruiting female and minority students to STEM classes and pathways.” She said something in her session that resonated with me deeply. In a nutshell, she said that most female scientists that she has talked to knew they were going to be a scientist starting about age 5.

AGE 5!!!

The other thing that she discovered from these scientists is that they all had something in their lives that influenced their choice, a mentor, a family member who was into “sciencey” things.

The other group of STEM women that Gwen spoke to that didn’t yet know by age 5, had ongoing experiences in the sciences throughout their elementary and middle school years. Not the kind of things you just get in school, but moms and dads that had the foresight to put their little girls in clubs like 4-H, take family vacations to science museums, or built tree-houses, or simply taught their daughters to use tools – and then let them build things.

So here’s why my blood is pumping…

At age 5, I wanted to be a Disney Princess – not literally, but I wanted to be a voice for Disney characters. That was my first influence. And secondly I wanted to invent things like my dad (he was a farmer and was always tinkering with better ways of doing this and that, fixing broken things, etc). And thirdly I wanted to be a teacher like my mom. Those were my influences. But then one Christmas, something magical happened. My brother and I opened a big present that turned out to be a Texas Instruments computer. We never had a game console, skipped over the Atari and went straight to code.

My imaginary world changed. I call it imaginary because it was only when I was alone, in the back bedroom of our house that I would explore the code, changing values in a program to figure out what they did. I wrote music programs. I played with changing sound and volume and explored if/then scenarios in the TI Basic programming language.

I only played games when people were around; I was unstoppable playing Munch-Man, a Pac-Man like game that pooped out chain links instead of eating dots to finish a maze.

This was 5th Grade. Imagine that, mom’s, your daughter programming computers in the 5th grade in 1985. What would you do if you knew about that?

Therein lies the problem and the thing that makes me want to scream. There was no adult mentor or role model that could make the connection for me of what to do with my interest in programming.

There are two things that my personal experience points out. I secretly loved something that was strongly correlated to boy’s territory, and my favorite influences in school never nurtured my path to technology or science.

Who were my mentors?
Naturally, the arts and language arts teachers were my mentors. They were visible in my life. Arts people are natural nurturers, and the students (like me) who need to that kind of environment will naturally flock to the arts. And though my test scores for language arts were about average, my love of creative writing and drama allowed me to excel in classroom work.

Now, it should be noted that my science aptitude was always in the 99th percentile on every standardized test I ever took. Yet I don’t recall any teacher pushing me in that direction – accept one. She was our high school math teacher my Sophomore and Junior year. She was the only person I revealed my love of science to. She encouraged me to pursue it, but that might have been too little too late.

Back to my love of technology for a moment, and it should be noted that I lump tech and science together as one concept for the purpose of my personal story. It was now my senior year, the one female STEM related teacher in our school had been replaced by a football coach, who taught all the math classes and the one computer class I had been waiting my entire student life to take…

The first day of class comes and our teacher hands out a piece of paper with a short program written on it. He tells us to type it out on our computers and run the program. Finally, I’m going learn the how and why of the values that I’m typing, the different functions, the principles behind if/then…. I finish typing, hit enter to run the program, wait with bated breath for the rest of the class to finish so we can discuss the program… WTF. He just starts talking football and hockey with the dudes in the class until the bell rings.

I knew more about programming than my teacher. He was a coach that happened to teach math and got stuck with a computer class that he didn’t know anything about. The rest of the semester he handout a program, we typed it, then he talked sports. FAIL

I had one saving grace that year. I had signed up for Principles of Technology in our school’s vocational center. I was the only girl in the class, and most of the other students were from other towns, because our VoTech center served the entire county. I played with circuits and engineering concepts all year, and it was my favorite class – ever! Funny, this class was also taught by a coach, but the difference was undeniable. Coach P nurtured our class. He didn’t remind me I was a girl. He didn’t talk sports in our class. He taught us. He taught me. And I am very proud to say that I received a silver medal in the ND State Vocational Industrial Clubs of America competition for my demonstration of electrical circuits. But once again, too little to late. I went to college for the arts and now have a Master of Arts in Theater.

I eventually found my way back to technology and have spent the last 10 years in web development and online marketing.

Why have I told you this story? Because I am passionate about giving girls the opportunity to follow their aptitudes. I knew I was good in science, but I had no female mentors to help me see myself in a science career. I loved computer programming but I didn’t know anyone who could show me the way.

Ladies, we have to check ourselves right now. How many of us are in STEM careers and never volunteered to teach a girls group a quick activity that will get them excited about what you do?

How many of us are moms that have never signed our daughters up for computer class or another tech after-school activity.

How many of us have said – I don’t like math – in front of our kids.

How many of us have ignored opportunities for our little girls on subjects or skills we didn’t know anything about?

So here’s my pledge- I, Lynette Burgan, will share my skills – my love of technology with little girls, so that they may have the chance to recognize their aptitude, and more importantly so that they see other girls in technology making cool and useful things, and helping to make the world a better place. I further pledge to help mom’s help their little girls and to never categorize STEM as boy’s stuff.

Who’s with me?