As a young girl growing up in the 1970s, I was often asked what I wanted to be when I “grew up.” While I’m sure I gave an array of answers (depending on my mood and who was asking me,) there are two answers that stick out the most. The first was “President of the United States”, in which I benevolently told my mother I would allow her to be the keeper of the rose garden at the White House. As one might expect, I’m fairly certain a Presidential run is not in my future…and I’m ok with that. The second career choice? I wanted to be an astronomer, or astronaut, or something that allowed me to learn all about outer space. I was fascinated with the planets and galaxies and all the matter just floating around out there. With my mother’s “guidance”, I narrowed my future superwoman title down to “Aerospace Engineer.” And that’s what I decided on at the ripe old age of 9 or 10.
I loved math. I still love math. Even at age 43, I would gladly work on a book of Algebra for fun. In high school, I did my Geometry and Trigonometry homework in classes instead of waiting to get home because it was so much fun! (I may have tuned out on an important history lesson or two -- or fifty -- but I managed to scrape by.) This was it. This little girl with the nerdy math skills was going to be an aerospace engineer and work for NASA. Done.
I will never forget the Christmas of 1983 when my father unveiled the best gift ever. If you were born after 1979, there is a good chance that what I am about to reveal will either frighten you or leave you scratching your head. A Commodore 64. Yes, that’s what I said. A Commodore 64. A fantastic complement to our Atari Game Console, which we received the year before. (You can never have enough Frogger, Pac Man and Donkey Kong, you know.)
I learned how to code in BASIC (or maybe it was Pascal or FORTRAN…I don’t really remember). I wrote simple programs and though it was the “coolest” thing ever to be able to get that huge hulky piece of machinery to do what I told it to do. I created a “quiz” about astronomy and made everyone in my family take it. Repeatedly. I had plans to create an entire computerized encyclopedia on that thing! (Two things about this are funny – 1) I’m pretty sure someone had already done that, and 2) many of you reading this don’t know what an encyclopedia is!)
Then it just stopped. I don’t remember why, exactly, but it did. What I do know is that it had something to do with Junior High School. Something happens to girls in 7th and 8th grade that appears to be almost inevitable…or is it?
Study after study has shown that girls’ self-esteem plummets around puberty. Self-worth and self-confidence become associated with how you look and act. It’s no longer about how you think and feel. The peer pressure to “fit in” and be like “the rest of the girls” sets in like a thick fog that you can’t avoid or escape. In some cases, it’s so extreme that adults (even parents and teachers!) tell girls and young women that they aren’t “smart enough.” In most cases, it’s more subtle, and while boys are encouraged to pursue education and careers in science and math, girls are just, well, taught be girls.
Sometimes girls that “act” like boys get teased. And so they stop. And they learn to “act” like girls. No wonder there are so few women in STEM Careers in the U.S. In the summer before 9th grade, I changed my mind to be a child psychologist. I followed this path all the way through college. But I never became a psychologist. In fact, after 5 years in the mental health field, I escaped it like a woman running from a burning building. I was in the wrong profession. While I am now successful and love my career as a business woman, there’s not a day that goes by that I wish I had pursued my original dream. I am one of the lost girls.
How can we, as a society, fix this problem? Fortunately, people are paying attention now, and there are hundreds of organizations that support girls and women in technology. Recently, Mindteck Academy sponsored an all-volunteer group (CoderKids Harrisburg) that teaches children ages 7-17 how to code, and especially encourages girls and minorities to join. I spoke directly to all the girls there and shared my story – and encouraged them to fight against the pressure to be “more like a girl”. All women in positions of influence needs to talk to more girls, more often. Together, we can help the future female STEM leaders of tomorrow evolve and flourish.