It never once occurred to me that I wouldn’t have a professional career. When women I know drop out of the workforce, whether it’s to have children or for other reasons, I’m always surprised. Not because I don’t think everyone should have that choice and do what’s best for their families, but because it’s something that I have never considered an option for myself; not as a little girl, not while investing decades and thousands of dollars in my education, and not now, when I’m married and of so-called “child-bearing age.” Never even thought about it.
Something else I never considered, however, was being a hacker. I like to think that this because I was so passionate about writing and the arts that an interest in engineering, math or programming just wasn’t a good fit for me. But a fascinating study by University of Texas sociologist Catherine Riegle-Crumb discussed on NPR today reveals that the real reason more girls aren’t in the STEM fields is because…wait for it…more women aren’t already scientists, mathematicians and engineers. According to the piece Riegle-Crumb says:
“What we found is that in communities that had a higher percentage of women in the labor force who are working in science, technology, engineering and math, that in those schools, girls were as likely as boys to take physics, or even more likely.”
We didn’t have a lot of math and science jobs in my small tourism-based community growing up, but my teachers in these fields were almost exclusively male. The same is true for girls all over the US. It’s not that girls think math is hard or science is lame. It’s that we don’t see examples of ourselves doing jobs in those fields.
This is cycle that can stop, but not without effort. As women, we have to realize that our daughters and nieces and little girlfriends are watching us. They’re looking up to us and imagining themselves in our shoes, whether those are work boots, professional heels or houseshoes. What they’re not doing is imagining a life they can’t see in front of them.
So of course I, as a little girl, never thought about being a stay-at-home mom or an engineer. I knew no women in the STEM fields, but my mom worked, nearly all of my friends’ moms worked, my aunts worked and my mom’s friends all worked. My 80-plus-year-old grandmother just stopped working a couple of years ago, and that took a lot of encouragement.
This is why it’s important that we need to fight for more women everywhere: more women in politics, more women in the STEM fields, more women in the C-suite, more women news anchors and late night talk show hosts, and fewer horrifying gender-role affirmations like the t-shirt on the right. This is why counting women matters, because the girls are watching.