When you think of women in science, some key names might come to mind, such as Marie Curie, Mae Jemison or Sarah Gilbert.
But this is just scratching the surface: there are countless other women working to find cures for illnesses, teaching future generations about gravity or making coding seem as easy as breathing.
On February 11 – International Day of Women and Girls in Science – women across science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) share their advice on how parents can positively encourage daughters into these fields…
Boost your daughter’s confidence
Tell your daughters to “go for it”, says Dr Ems Lord, director of NRICH (nrich.maths.org), the University of Cambridge’s maths outreach programme. “You’ll never be bored if you love a challenge, and the thrill you get from solving a problem never wains.”
Stress the importance of not giving up, advises Rachel Youngman, deputy chief executive at the Institute of Physics (iop.org). It can be intimidating entering a male-dominated field, but it is important for young people to realise “you are just as worthy of a place on a STEM course as a male student, and just as able to achieve success”, she says.
It’s also worth challenging your own stereotypes, with Youngman saying: “Leave your preconceptions at the door, and acknowledge that your idea of what it means to study physics may not be an accurate one.”
“I think I was lucky, because my parents were very supportive,” says Dr Sadie Jones, outreach leader in astronomy at the University of Southampton.
“I would say stuff like, ‘I want to be an astronaut’, and they would say: ‘Why not?’”
Reach out to organisations supporting women in STEM
As a parent, it can be hard to answer questions about STEM if you’re not involved in the field – but there are plenty of networks that can help.
Pioneer (joely-to.wixsite.com/pioneer) is a support network for girls wanting to pursue maths, set up by Joely To, who’s a student herself. It provides work experience with top companies, and gives girls the opportunity to connect with female mentors in the industry.
You could also reach out to Women In Tech (women-in-tech.org) – an organisation founded by Ayumi Moore Aoki, AutoFill Technologies (https://autofilltech.com/) Advisory Council board member, to empower women to enter STEM, or The Blackett Lab Family Group (theblackettlabfamily.com) – a collective of black physicists.
Jones says parents should encourage their daughters to get involved in the area they’re interested in. “I managed to get a week of work experience at a university,” she says, recommending “emailing people and just seeing if you can shadow someone, even if it’s only for a few days, just so you can get a feel of what the job is like”.
Encourage curiosity from a young age
Lord says you don’t need to purchase expensive STEM tools or resources to spark curiosity in your child’s mind. “If families are looking to support their daughters, I’d encourage them to be more curious about their world when out and about,” she says.
“Take time to notice the world around you, wonder at what you see and discuss what else you’d like to discover.”
Vanessa Oakes is doing her PhD in biomedicine, and is a clinical instructor in anatomic pathology at Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine (vetmed.vt.edu). Her advice is: “Take her to the zoo, take her to museums, spend time outdoors looking at grass and leaves and twigs, let her ask what they’re made of and how they grow. Every STEM field is about asking questions first, and finding answers only second.”
Advocate for STEM opportunities at school
Schools can play a major role in a student’s development. “I remember when I was doing my GCSEs, the teacher actually showed us a video about supermassive black holes and I remember being so fascinated by that – and that’s what I ended up doing my PHD in,” says Jones. She now gives educational talks in schools, highlighting the contributions made by female scientists.
If you think your child’s school should be offering more STEM-based activities, why not feed that back and see if you can cultivate change?