“Your daughter is obviously good at math,” the teacher says to the girl’s parents at a fourth-grade parent-teacher meeting.

The parents have noticed this, too, and suggest to the fourth grader that she study physics, astronomy, maybe engineering or another math-intensive field. As she gets older, she remains interested in all those things, but she’s also picking up messages that are telling her something quite different.

She and her family are avid Big Bang Theory fans. They’ve watched every episode. So even as her parents and teachers are saying, “You’re good at this!” and “Follow your passion!” she’s seeing portrayals of men in gendered professions, like physics and engineering, who aren’t the kind of people she wants to hang out with. And the women? They’ve got self-image issues and aren’t particularly social either, and don’t work in math or physics: they’re psychologists and biologists. In fact, she thinks, everybody on this, and other shows that portray scientists, seems to be just weird.

But she persists, because she really does like math. When she gets to college, though, she finally gives in and changes her major. She hears things like what Molly Kelton, an assistant professor of math education at Washington State University Pullman, was told when she was in grad school: “‘You’re too pretty and too cool to be a mathematician.’ Which I found horribly insulting and not flattering at all,” she says.

Stephanie Hampton, too, can relate to feeling stigmatized for being female and smart. As a kid, she was a math whiz. Now she’s a role model for girls and women: she’s a WSU professor of environmental science who specializes in using big data to understand freshwater ecology, and also the director of a National Science Foundation program.

“My dad was an early computer scientist and they all had math degrees,” she explains. Her military family moved around a lot, so she had to test into a math class at every new school. Eventually, she says, “I became self-conscious about being younger, smaller, and drawing attention to go to the gifted program, so I made a decision: ‘I’m really not good at math.’ Nobody really tried to stop me: at school, there was an acceptance. But when I went to university, I had to take math and had the humbling experience of having to take remedial algebra in order to get into the required class. And I had to work hard. For biology, I had to take stats, and it was different. Algebra was very theoretical, where statistics was real-world problems. And it was relevant to biology, so for me, that turned the attitude around.”

Julie Kmec, a WSU sociologist who studies the problem of inclusion in engineering, says that the “follow your dream” narrative is actually a kind of trap, if what we’re after is greater diversity in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math). It’s a trap because girls do exactly that: they gravitate toward careers where they see people like themselves. And in the media, especially, and, sadly, even in the real world, the American workplace is very gendered, with males in math-intensive fields, and women is the “helping” professions like medicine and law and, to a lesser extent, in the life sciences.

Kmec and an international team of collaborators have been studying the contrast between the United States, with its (more or less) gender equity but low participation of women in engineering (hovering for years somewhere between 10 and 20 percent of the workforce), with predominantly Muslim countries, where women make up as much a third or more of the engineering workforce. Kmec and her colleagues interviewed women in Tunisia, Malaysia, and elsewhere to learn why that might be. Although her team is still analyzing their data, a common theme sticks out: girls who did well in math and other STEM-related studies in school were pushed towards a STEM field. One interviewee said she knew she had a choice: because she tested well in school, she was going to have to be either a doctor or an engineer. Since she didn’t like blood, she went into engineering, even though she knew it was a “man’s world” and she would face some discrimination.

But women in these countries also apparently feel a greater sense of what Americans might call civic duty. Women not only want a degree of financial independence, they want to serve their communities and make their families proud of them.

In the United States, though, “Girls see men and women doing different things,” Kmec says. And the things we are passionate about “are often aligned with sex-stereotyped jobs. What we pick as a career is very much tied to our gender identity. We recognize ourselves as women through what we study and what we will eventually do. So telling a girl who likes math to follow her passion might even be counterproductive–because she’s not going to see a lot of media images of women doing math.”

And the problem is not unique to women. What people of color see in media representations of STEM workers is that those fields are dominated by white males. (For example, a recent report produced by the American Institute of Physics said that, although physics is experiencing a boom in the number of undergraduate degrees granted, African Americans are disproportionately underrepresented in the field.) As Kmec adds, media portrayals of STEM professionals “also assumes a certain privilege which is not inviting of members of non-dominant cultures.”

So how do we encourage girls and members of other underrepresented groups to go into–and, just as importantly, stay in—STEM fields?

Hampton forwarded a Twitter thread about that exact topic, written by California Institute of Technology cryoseismologist Celeste Labedz. In a series of tweets, Labedz writes that while it’s important to encourage girls with positive messages of the “you can do it!” type, we also have to prepare them for a reality that is much less black and white. “Part of me doesn’t want to answer at all,” she writes. “The question kind of implies that it we just gave girls the right kind of advice and they followed it, they’d be perfectly fine in STEM, ignoring all of the structural inequities that work against women in many STEM environments.”

One commenter on the thread wrote, “We have to be honest about the barriers but also about the ways in which they can be overcome.”

One of the ways the barriers to women and others is overcome is by looking at the reality of diversity: diverse teams are simply more productive and better at solving problems. Another is to cultivate the idea of allies: boys and people of privilege (as Labedz herself says she is) need to be allies to girls and people whose socio-economic reality disadvantages them structurally.

Candis Claiborn, dean emeritus of the WSU Voiland College of Architecture and Engineering, says that “some of our female students find that some of their worst interactions are with male students. When they’re working in groups, some of the boys don’t want the girls to touch anything. They want them to take notes and go get the refreshments. Multiple women students have conveyed this to me. And you’d think their male peers would be a lot more enlightened by now. We do have more women than in the past. But I’ve heard stories about a boy having a crush on a girl and being horrible when she has not responded. I think, C’mon, this is not a dating club, you’re supposed to be professionals. They’ve got to be allies to all their classmates.”

What’s not clear is how, exactly, we create a culture of allies that empowers diverse workplaces, even though there’s a clear economic incentive to do so.

Claiborn says, “You can do implicit bias training in the workplace, but how do you do that in the general student population?” That’s a question she is hoping to answer in her current collaboration on diversity in engineering. But she is leery of the easy answer, adding that “if you march people to a mandatory training it feels like indoctrination.”

Molly Kelton, collaborating with WSU entomologist Jeb Owen, thinks one path to inclusion and diversity in STEM is through the arts. Owen, who is also an artist, and Kelton are developing a curriculum for elementary and middle schoolers that emphasizes visual and systems thinking.

“Systems thinking is really where scientific fields are now. Research now is much less reductionist and more holistic. So it’s more accurate,” Kelton says.

Working with underserved kids in the Yakima area, they’re engaging with students on West Nile Virus, a disease that tends to disproportionately affect less affluent agricultural communities.

“We conjecture that having a systems view of a scientific phenomenon like West Nile Virus” empowers students to “think of all the things that go into having a risk of contracting the virus. Sure, that includes getting a mosquito bite. But it also includes things like changes in the landscape, agricultural practices, climate and weather, the dynamics of invasive species. That means there are a lot of different careers and professions working on this phenomenon. So the conjecture is that by supporting systems thinking we actually broaden the set of imagined possible futures and ways of engaging in STEM.”

If one of the attractions of law, medicine, and environmental sciences for American women has been the palpable difference their work makes in the quality of life for their families and communities, then widening the focus on quality-of-life issue may be a ticket to inclusion.

One thing’s for sure, though, is that we’re definitely missing out on solutions to current issues by not including more diverse perspectives when we tackle a challenge. As Kenneth Gibbs, Jr. writes in a Scientific American blog post, not cultivating inclusion in STEM means we are missing out on talent–talent that keeps us competitive but that also solves long-standing scientific problems and that breaks through gendered assumptions. This goes for climate change, healthcare, civic and infrastructure engineering and, as Hampton points out, the reproductive biology of birds.

For decades, Hampton says, “in the field of animal behavior, there was a generally accepted idea that female birds are advantaged by having a single male partner. But when women started to become more prominent in biology, Patty Gowaty put forth the idea that there could be some evolutionary advantage for females to have more than one partner and this could be a fruitful area of research. In retrospect, she took the female’s perspective. Indeed, over the years since then, there is evidence that females seek multiple partners and when you do the math, there are good evolutionary reasons why a female would do that to have more diverse offspring. That’s a really good example of how we don’t know what perspectives we’re missing right now in STEM because it’s not as diverse as it should be.”


Read more about WSU efforts to recruit and retain women in STEM