Count Girls In: Empowering Girls to Combine Any Interests with STEM to Open Up a World of Opportunity

by Karen Panetta Ph.D., Katianne Williams



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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781613739396
Publisher: Chicago Review Press, Incorporated
Publication date: 08/01/2018
Pages: 272
Sales rank: 385,273
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Karen Panetta, PhD, is the dean for graduate education and a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Tufts University, and founder of the international nonprofi t Nerd Girls ( Dr. Panetta has been featured in national publications and newspapers such as Women’s Day, Elle Girl, the Boston Globe, and the New York Times. Katianne Williams has an MFA in creative writing from George Mason University and a computer engineering degree from Tufts University. She is an award-winning contributor to IEEE’s Women in Engineering Magazine and writes for

Read an Excerpt


Maintain the Awesomeness

Little girls start out so full of spirit, joyously and chaotically marching to their own drums. They dance, they sing, they dress themselves in whatever smorgasbord of clothing makes them happy. Each day when they rise, they are ready to take the world by storm. They are interested in what everything is and how everything works. Their favorite question is why. They can be loud, they know what they want, and they are going to be presidents, astronauts, doctors, scientists, or butterflies. These girls are chock-full of awesomeness.

And yet, as the years pass, many girls lose their natural inquisitiveness, their enthusiasm, and even their confidence. Sometimes they lose their authenticity and put aside their passions in order to fit in. In the classroom, teachers see many girls begin to drift away from STEM subjects — science, technology, engineering, and math.

The reasons girls turn away from STEM are as varied and complex as girls themselves. Obstacles crop up in elementary school, middle school, high school, and even in college and beyond.

Some girls don't feel smart enough. Maybe they missed a key math concept in elementary school and were never able to catch up. Or they failed a test in middle school and their confidence plummeted. Or they were told by a teacher, parent, or peer that they weren't capable. It's not unusual for a girl to truly excel in math and science, to be one of the smartest in her class, and yet still doubt her ability.

Some girls look at the world and see confirmation that boys are made for math and science while girls aren't. They may think they see proof of this in the behaviors of their own parents, grandparents, or teachers. A girl may have heard her own mother say she's bad at math or had female teachers who show math anxiety or heard a trusted adult claim a girl should behave a certain way. Some girls, particularly at the high school or college level, encounter biased teachers. In fact, some girls have been led to believe that their math and science ability is innate and unchangeable — so what's the point of trying to be better?

Many girls aren't provided enough opportunities to engage in STEM, and the experiences they do engage in may be oriented toward learning styles that don't suit them. Teachers may not be properly trained, and the students might be left to fend for themselves. Girls can leave these extracurricular courses feeling frustrated if there isn't enough direction or disinterested if the subject matter doesn't appeal to them. Some girls who show no interest in building a car for a race may be more interested in project-based assignments like designing an animatronic puppet for a show, and yet they aren't always given that chance.

Some girls are interested in many subjects and feel that STEM is too single-minded and limiting. As they begin to look to the future they envision a job that involves communication and collaboration and that makes the world a better place. Because they don't know enough about STEM jobs, they assume the work must be dull and lonely. They picture themselves sitting at a computer in a cubicle all day or fitting together metal parts in a dirty machine shop.

As girls become teenagers, many want to fly under the radar. Instead of standing out, they want to blend into a culture that still expects girls to look pretty, not appear too smart, and be demure and deferential. They care greatly about what their friends think of them, and those girls interested in boys will begin to form ideas about what might make a boy like them. Most will tell you that aptitude in math and science is not what boys find attractive.

Girls may think that they have to check their authentic feminine selves at the door to be an engineer or a scientist. They think they must fit into a male world and play by male rules. They assume in a STEM career they will have to downplay their own femininity. They begin to sense that there is something "boyish" about STEM: girls interested in STEM must have boyish interests and boyish brains.

As girls progress from kindergarten through college, they have to push through some pretty heavy obstacles. Luckily, parents and educators can remove many of these obstacles just by modifying their own behaviors and attitudes. Then, for those obstacles that remain, who better to help girls smash through them than parents and teachers?

Through Nerd Girls and our work with the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, we spend a good amount of time talking with woman scientists, engineers, and other STEM professionals, many of whom are excited to share their experiences and to act as mentors to young women. When we talk we are always interested in hearing how they ended up in STEM.

Most credit a parent. Many others credit a teacher.

The recurring theme isn't that these women had parents who worked in STEM fields themselves but that they had parents who encouraged their daughters, who played games with their kids at the coffee table, and who valued education even when they themselves did not hold a college degree. In other words, it doesn't matter what your background is. If you are a primary caregiver, you are in the number-one position to influence your daughter through everyday words and actions.

In addition, the women we talk to mention teachers or counselors at every stage who believed in them. They remember teachers who made math and science particularly engaging, who brought in real-world examples, who made a particular effort to talk about potential careers, or who took them aside to provide extra encouragement.

These can be the briefest of encounters. Think about how much good you could do in a short time by providing even small words of affirmation.

Unfortunately, even today, young women have stories about teachers who made them feel that they were lesser than. There are still high school guidance counselors who dissuade girls from applying to engineering schools and teachers who subject girls to gender bias in the classroom. Often, women who remember these stories relay them as the foremost reason they became determined to succeed in the field. They wanted to prove their detractors wrong. Such motivation is commendable, but we can't forget all the young women who have dropped out because of such comments.

This book will show you how to raise girls who will remain curious and inquisitive. You will learn how to avoid the obstacles — the myths, the stereotypes, the peer pressure, and the lack of information — that girls face from kindergarten through college that can cut confidence, derail aspirations, and turn girls away from potential careers. You will discover how to empower the young women in your life to develop their talents, dream big, and follow those dreams all the way to a fulfilling career.

You don't want them to miss out. Today's girls will be entering the workforce at a unique and exciting time. Technology is literally embedded everywhere, changing the minutest areas of our lives, and you can be sure that while it has already left its mark on the career landscape, some of the biggest shifts are yet to come. There will be not only amazing opportunities in STEM but also very few careers that aren't leveraging its components in some way.

And then there's the salary. While money isn't the sole reason to encourage a girl in STEM, people with STEM degrees earn more. On average, they bring home a salary 26 percent higher than their non-STEM counterparts. Those with STEM degrees who then enter non-STEM occupations still outearn those with non-STEM degrees. STEM fields are projected to grow at a rate of 13 percent from 2012 and 2022.

Parents want to prepare girls to be successful. We want them to lead lives of happiness and financial security. We also want them to stay true to their authentic selves. In this regard, we can do two things for them: encourage their natural talents and make sure that all doors remain open to them so that they have choices.

Parents don't know where their girls' interests will lead them, whether they will be doctors, engineers, marketers, artists, or any one of a million occupations, many of which are just coming into being. One college counselor routinely tells parents that no one can know what future careers will look like — job titles don't even exist yet for much of the work that today's children will be doing.

This doesn't mean parents should throw up their hands and wait to see what transpires. These jobs aren't going to fall from the sky. Our generation is already changing the landscape, and our children are going to take what our current workforce hands them and continue to innovate. They will apply these new technologies to education, health, manufacturing, business, transportation, and anything else they can think of. They will change the world by working in areas such as personalized medicine, the environment, and renewable energy.

Take, for example, the emergence of the internet of things (IoT). The idea of the IoT is basically that everyday objects are connected to each other and therefore able to send and receive data. The IoT gained ground humming along in our cell phones, watches, and the switches that let us turn on our porch lights while we are out at dinner. Now, all sorts of companies are scrambling to incorporate voice-based platforms like Amazon's Alexa into their products so that everything from cars to washing machines will literally do what we say. But things are just getting started, and this is small potatoes compared to the potential that technologists see for the future. Apply IoT principles to the creation of smart cities and imagine the benefits — but also the risks — of smart high-rises and office buildings, smart transportation systems, and smart power grids. Imagine the people this industry will employ.

Jeanne Beliveau-Dunn is CEO of the Internet of Things Talent Consortium, a group that includes power players from institutions such as MIT, Cisco Systems, GE, the New York Academy of Sciences, Pearson, and Rockwell. In a webinar for Meeting of the Minds, Beliveau-Dunn, who was named in the National Diversity Council's "2015 Top 50 Most Powerful Women in Technology," displays a slide titled "New IoT Job Roles" that lists some of the new types of talent that society needs as we digitize our cities and as city populations grow.

What are some of the jobs she sees for the future? Professional tribers, described as marketing folk who bring people together through digital platforms. Data scientists who mine and put to use all the data from all the things that will be connected in the future. Digital anthropologists. Virtual reality designers. 3-D printing technicians.

These and the many jobs that will grow in importance along with them will be fast paced and exciting. They will demand twenty-first-century skills like technological literacy, creativity, design, innovation, communication, and collaboration that will be as crucial as traditional core subjects. These jobs have no gender.

Girls and young women today are poised to be at the forefront of this remarkable change and opportunity. But in order for girls to reach that point, parents may need to put the past behind them and adjust how they talk to girls about science and technology. It is up to the people in the trenches to understand how attitudes toward STEM may be informing young girls.

Success depends on adults increasing their own STEM literacy and perceptions. What is your personal starting point? How do you feel about girls in STEM? Do you believe STEM fields are primarily for boys and a certain set of mathematically gifted tomboys? Are glitter-laden girls who love to dance and dress their stuffed animals excluded from loving science and technology? While everyone encourages preschoolage boys and girls to practice math and science, do you feel a subtle shift in your attitude once those same students reach fourth, fifth, or tenth grade?

Think honestly about your answers. If you're going to raise bright, creative, confident, and empowered girls who continue to believe in their awesomeness all the way through to the finish line — through college and beyond — you need to believe that girls are as capable and interested in twenty-first-century STEM as boys.

Putting It into Practice

* Ultimately, pursuing a career in STEM is a decision your daughter will make for herself. Encourage your daughter's natural talents and make sure that all doors remain open to her so that she has choices.

* Stay involved. Girls lose interest in STEM at different ages and for different reasons — but if you understand the many challenges girls face, you will be able to provide your daughter with the help, support, and encouragement she needs when she needs it.

* Don't underestimate your own influence. So many women in STEM credit a parent who believed in them, encouraged them, and placed a high value on education. While some of these parents are in STEM fields themselves, many are not. No STEM experience is necessary.

* Not so sure about STEM? Take some time to reflect on how your own attitude may be limiting your daughter.

* Look to the future. STEM, especially technological literacy, will be even more interwoven into everything we do. This means that no matter what career your daughter chooses, there's a good chance STEM know-how and confidence will help her do her job better and more efficiently.


Whose Brain Is Really Better?

In 2002 researchers Victor Lavy and Edith Sand, economists from the University of Warwick and Tel Aviv University, set out to study both the long- and short-term effects of teachers' gender bias on primary school students. In other words, could teacher bias early in a girl's academic career actually have a negative effect on the courses she signs up to take in high school, the career she chooses, and, finally, the salary she brings home later in life? These researchers believe that the answer is yes.

Lavy and Sand examined the test scores of three sets of Israeli sixth graders between 2002 and 2004. When they compared the results of teacher-graded classroom tests to national exams with similar content, they found that while females outperformed males on the national exam, the males scored higher on the classroom tests. This happened only in a single subject — math. As the researchers followed the students through middle school and high school, that early gender bias continued to influence the affected students. Boys who had been "over-assessed" saw their scores on national exams improve and were more apt to sign up for higher-level math and science courses in high school. Girls who had been "under-assessed," on the other hand, saw their performance decline on national exams, and they shied away from higher-level math and science courses. Without these advanced-level courses under their belts, they are unlikely to choose a STEM field in college.

Oftentimes, gender bias is unconscious, manifesting in small ways. Well-intentioned parents and educators can simply slip up. Even parents who love their daughters and want the best for them sometimes, without realizing it, treat them differently. A little girl once wanted to get into the Nerd Girl's solar car, but her mother told her it was for boys. "Let your brother get in," the mother said.

Henry Houh and Rebecca Rapoport, cofounders of Einstein's Workshop in Burlington, Massachusetts, have seen this unconscious bias at play. They were working their booth at a maker fair one day when a mother approached with her two children. Both children enjoyed playing with the Zometool building toys that had been set out, but the mother talked about the math behind the toy with her son and talked about how pretty the toy was with her daughter. A second mother approached with her daughters, but while the girls were absorbed in play she inquired about opportunities for her absent son. These are not only missed opportunities but also send the subtle yet damaging message to girls that "this is not for you."

Why do we still subconsciously believe that boys are better suited for math and science to the extent that we let it influence how we grade our students and what opportunities we provide our children?

Scientists and psychologists have long studied the cognitive development of children and adolescents. Their results are generally confirmed by the legions of teachers whose classrooms act as minilaboratories. Overall, scientists reveal that young girls' brains have stronger neural connectors to enable faster processing of information. The cortical areas associated with verbal-emotive functioning are also more highly developed than in boys' brains, leading to stronger memory and listening powers. This also aids with the complexities of reading and writing. The corpus callosum, the bridge between the brain's hemispheres, is often larger and denser in girls than in boys, making girls stronger at multi-tasking and connecting words with feelings. Girls have higher levels of serotonin and oxytocin, which means that they may more carefully consider the consequences of their actions than boys.


Excerpted from "Count Girls In"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Karen Panetta, PhD, and Katianne Williams.
Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Authors' Note vii

Part I What We Want for Our Girls 1

1 Maintain the Awesomeness 3

2 Whose Brain Is Really Better? 10

3 Meet Them Where They Are 16

Part II Build a Strong Foundation 25

4 The Power of Following Her Interests 27

5 It's Better to Create than to Consume 48

6 Adults, Check Your Attitude 58

7 The Power of Role Models 74

Part III Help Her Down the Pathway 83

8 Grade School: The World of Possibilities 85

9 Middle School: Don't Give Up! 128

10 High School: Keeping the Door to STEM Open 157

11 College: Getting Strategic 187

Acknowledgments 204

STEM Job Descriptions 206

Organizations, Websites, and Other Resources 229

Notes 235

Bibliography 247

Index 258

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