Melissa Gregson is the managing director of Teach For America’s STEM Initiative.
This month I celebrated a personal milestone when STEMConnector’s 100 Women in STEM publication was released (STEM is an acronym for the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math). I had the honor of sharing the pages with a true pioneer: Sally Ride, the first American woman in space. I’ve never questioned the existence of a publication celebrating female doctors, engineers, and mathematicians—it seems natural that so many phenomenal role models would be highlighted. But recently I’ve been reminded of our society’s unfortunate history of distorting positive images of women in STEM, and the barriers we still face.
In his recent article, "The Women Who Would Have Been Sally Ride," Alexis Madrigal reports that NASA was training female astronauts twenty years before Ride’s launch but never allowed them to fly, so strong was the culture of sexism in the field. At the same time Geraldyn Cobb was outlasting her male counterparts in the sensory deprivation tank, The Palm Beach Post was describing her as “a pretty 29-year-old miss who would probably take high heels along on her first space flight if given the chance.”
Heels made a resurgence in the European Union’s 2012 “Science: It’s a Girl Thing!” campaign, revealing the enduring nature of gender stereotypes in STEM.
In the ad, three runway-ready models mixed potions and solved complex algorithms to create lipstick, blush, and nail polish. The campaign’s creators clearly hadn’t done their research: girls who encounter overtly feminine role models actually report lower interests and future expectations in STEM fields, according to University of Michigan researchers.
Women in STEM have come a long way—I wouldn’t be here if we hadn’t, and neither would the incredible women that make up nearly 60 percent of Teach For America’s STEM teachers. But we still have a long road ahead to reach our girls, who according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, are experiencing a gender achievement gap in math and science that only widens as they get older. By the time they reach high school, girls lag behind their male counterparts in all ten Advanced Placement STEM subjects. Clearly, there’s still a pressing need for positive STEM exemplars.
Sally Ride was smart, pioneering, and inspirational—a true role model for girls like me growing up in the '80s. She didn’t use her PhD in physics to make lipstick, and she didn’t bring high heels into space. She used her education to instill a confidence in the younger generation that they, too, could be successful in STEM. It’s time we follow Ride’s lead and make sexist clichés a thing of the past, increasing the visibility of the wonderful women in STEM.
Melissa Gregson is the managing director of Teach For America’s STEM Initiative. Vanessa Descalzi contributed to this post.