I still remember that hot, humid summer evening 50 years ago, my eyes glued to our black and white television set, waiting to see Apollo 11 touch down on the moon.
My family, along with so many other families around the country, sat transfixed with excitement and anticipation as we collectively held our breath watching Neil Armstrong bound onto the moon’s surface. We strained to hear through the crackling transmission the words uttered during his historic first steps: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
And now, a half-century later, I’m caught up again in the excitement generated by NASA’s announcement of its latest lunar mission, Artemis. Set to launch in 2024, a soft landing to the moon’s unexplored south pole is planned. And this time, a woman will be on the journey.
Twelve men have walked on the moon, but not a single woman. NASA and others have commented on the inspiration that this mission will instill in young girls. Indeed, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine remarked when describing the Artemis mission, “I’ve got an 11-year-old daughter, and I want her to see herself as having every opportunity that I saw myself having when I was growing up. I think this could be transformational for young women all across not just the country, but all across the world.”
In five years, one of the 12 female astronauts currently in training will bear the inspiring title of the first woman to walk on the moon. Once she is chosen, comparisons to Sally Ride, the first American woman to go into space, will be inevitable. Sally Ride’s mission helped girls and women envision that they, too, could journey to the stars. The media attention and public presentations that resulted from Dr. Ride’s famous expedition, including a visit to my school in 2001, were infectious.
As the expression goes, you can’t be what you can’t see.
Role models do inspire, but during the day-to-day realities of life, their influence can be lost. It is unfair and, frankly, unrealistic to expect that one person can carry the social, cultural, and impetus for change needed to achieve gender parity in the STEM fields. As Bonnie Dunbar, retired NASA astronaut and TEES distinguished research professor of aerospace engineering at Texas A&M University, noted last year: “One might have thought that Sally’s legendary flight, and those of other women astronauts over the last 35 years, might have inspired a wave of young women (and men) into STEM careers … but this hasn’t happened.”
To be fair, some areas of science (e.g. biology, chemistry and math) have seen increased numbers of women since the 1980s, so they approach gender parity. However, engineering, physics and computer science (EPaCS) — areas most associated with space exploration — have not evidenced significant advances in the percentage of women pursuing degrees or careers.
Indeed, growth in women’s participation in engineering and physics has been relatively minor, and the percentage of women in computer science has actually declined over the past decades. Moreover, the small percentage of underrepresented minorities, such as African Americans, pursuing undergraduate degrees in these three fields have remained relatively constant or declined since 1996.
Much has been written about the growing demand for employees with STEM skills and the shortage of workers with this training. There is a need to attract women and underrepresented groups to the STEM fields not only because it is the right thing to do, but as a society we are missing out on the novel solutions that diverse participation brings.
Advancing women and underrepresented groups in STEM will require multifaceted, concerted efforts. Recognizing the importance of this, The Agnes Irwin School, through our Center for the Advancement of Girls, hosted a series of conferences that brought together a collaborative of voices, including educators and administrators from both K-12 and higher education sectors, representatives from corporate and nonprofit institutions, and researchers, to identify and share solutions.
One of the themes that developed through these conversations was the importance of mentors — those individuals who make a difference in the daily lives of girls and women. Unlike role models who mainly allow girls to imagine themselves in different ways, mentors foster relationships that give girls skills and access to programs and professions that they need. For example, mentor programs targeting young women majoring in engineering — even ones that only last one year and consist of just four sessions — have been shown to act as significant social inoculations against negative stereotypes and enhance girls’ sense of belonging in the program for years afterwards.
Despite the evidence that mentors make a difference, it is disheartening to know that undergraduates pursuing science and engineering degrees are less likely to have mentors than those majoring in the humanities. Similarly, experimental evidence reveals that both male and female scientists are more likely to indicate they are willing to mentor a male applicant for a job in their laboratory than a female applicant, despite the fact that the applicants’ resumes were identical — only the name on the resume had been changed.
We need to heed the clarion call to do more, to be more intentional about supporting an inclusive environment, especially in the EPaCS fields. We need to actively mentor and invest in girls’ and women’s futures. Five years from now, when we herald the first woman to walk on the moon, it would also be equally exciting to have made great strides in advancing women in EPaCS. While we reach for the moon, let us work towards an inclusive, supportive and welcoming ecosystem for all, here on earth.
Knowledge is power!
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