a photo of a young girl in a science lab wearing a white lab coat and goggles. A pot of steam is in front of her and her hands are out to her side in excitement about the experiment.

Women Belong In Any Field

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I saw a friend who I hadn’t seen in quite a while. It was great to catch up but I’m still thinking about (and frustrated by) what she told me. She was also frustrated.

Her daughter had changed her major.

Her daughter, Gemma, is close to graduating so when I asked about her progress, I was very surprised! I know that changing a major isn’t a big deal. Students change their majors all the time. I did. My son did. Many, many (so many) people do. Like I said, it’s no big deal. 

But it was this time.

Gemma was an engineering major. She was interested in aerospace engineering and had planned on going into the field for years. She’s smart. She has always earned high grades and participated in activities that encouraged her interest in engineering.

So why the shift? Had her interest waned? Had something else become more interesting?

Either reason—even MANY other reasons would be fine. There are plenty of good reasons to change a major but not in this case. It was, largely, because of a male professor. 

This professor told Gemma, referring to her major, “I look at you and I just don’t see it.” 

I look at you?!

Well, he certainly didn't see her. He saw his own biases. 

There are so many things wrong with this.

Gemma is a beauty. She’s a busy sorority girl. She has a steady boyfriend. She golfs. She's well-spoken and thoughtful and very intelligent. She’s great! But her professor doesn’t know her. What could he possibly SEE other than a couple of the things I mentioned that speak positively to his male view? There’s nothing he would see except what he knows how to see. That men are engineers. Even in 2023. At least, and especially, in this man’s mind.

In 2021 13% of aerospace engineers in the United States were women. It’s the engineering discipline with the fifth-highest number of men. They could’ve used Gemma!

Here's the problem, though I'm sure you already know. Even intelligent, capable, confident young women can, unfortunately, process a completely unnecessary, inappropriate, b.s., manipulative statement from an “authority” figure in a disastrous way. In the way he intended it to be processed. Even with tools and courses and amazing support, women still struggle to find the confidence they need. Every day. They need to know--to believe--that they belong anywhere they want to be. Regardless of what anyone else thinks or believes or wants. 

There’s nothing wrong with Gemma. I don’t know the intricate workings of her mind that apparently caused her to buy into her professor’s preposterous statement. Clearly, there is plenty more to it than I will ever know. She’ll build a remarkable life as something (many things) other than an aerospace engineer. But what if nobody had bothered to take the time to dissuade her? What might it have taken for her to disregard her professor’s unwarranted opinion? It depends on Gemma. It depends on every individual woman.

How many other young women might that professor think he has "weeded out" with his remarks? 

Collectively, we need to be doing everything in our power to support and encourage girls and young women and each other to be involved in any field at all.

Any. Field.

Whatever field they want to be in. Regardless of what anybody else thinks or says. And we need to push back on and challenge any person who says that they don't belong.

The world needs female engineers. Women represent half the world’s population. They develop inclusive solutions. A woman invented the dishwasher. Duh. A woman discovered Kevlar. You’re welcome, military units worldwide. Women and men, boys and girls, both belong in STEM fields and STEM programs. This is not news. Let’s not pretend that it’s something new or something that shouldn’t be or isn’t happening.

Check out Engineering for Kids, EngineerGirl, Girls Engineering Change, Girls Who Stem,  techbridge girls, Girls in STEM, STEM Like a Girl, and local organizations and programs in your area to expose your girl to STEM programs. And if that’s where they want to be, that’s where they belong.

Follow-up. Gemma graduated in 2024 with a degree in Information Management and plans to finish her Engineering program as well since she was very close to finishing it before she changed her major.