“Well-behaved women rarely make history.” Jane Daniels saw that phrase on a T-shirt once, and it resonated within her.
As the director of Purdue University’s Women in Engineering program, Daniels’ career is devoted to encouraging young women to break through old-fashioned stereotypes that could hinder their success.
“I think we still send some very traditional messages [to girls]: be careful, be good, be quiet,” Daniels says. “And none of those things are very helpful in making major changes in society.”
Daniels’ aim is to bring more women into the field of engineering, mirroring a national trend of encouraging girls to explore careers in math and science. It is in these two areas that women are most severely under-represented.
From 1970 to 1996, the number of women earning bachelor’s degrees in engineering jumped a whopping 3,000 percent.
But placed into context, the progress seems much more muted; In 1970 women earned less than 1 percent of the engineering degrees awarded that year.
The 3,000 percent increase means that women were earning just 16 percent of the engineering degrees by 1996.
One group that has helped this trend build slow but steady momentum over the last 50 years is Girls Incorporated.
This national youth organization is dedicated to “inspiring all girls to become strong, smart and bold.”
Faedra Weiss, research associate at Girls Incorporated, says research has shown that when it comes to math and science, girls often don’t even realize their own bottomless potential.
“One thing that tends to be true with girls is that girls tend to think that math is something that you either have a talent for or you don’t, and that working harder isn’t going to help,” Weiss says. “If they’re having trouble, they may decide it’s not worth it.”
Where do girls get these notions?
Girls Incorporated has found that parents and teachers typically expect that girls will not perform as well as boys in science and math.
In a case of the “self-fulfilling prophecy,” these lowered expectations may be adopted by girls themselves, stunting their own ability to master more difficult subjects.
Additionally, there’s no shortage of gender stereotypes in the media, says Weiss.
“A girl who is good in math and science, she is portrayed as socially clueless with big glasses,” Weiss says. “The teen magazines which many kids devour make it clear that the ultimate point of your life is to keep up with the latest fashion, keep up with your girlfriends and be good with boys.”
Combine the notion that girls can’t be good at math and science with the notion that it’s not “cool” to be good at them anyway, and many young girls gravitate toward traditionally female dominated occupations.
“When I talk with young women, they still harbor images in their minds that it’s a masculine profession where women would not be welcome, that it doesn’t have a lot of social value,” Daniels says.
“If that’s what the young women are thinking that are interested in these programs, you can imagine what the ones are thinking who aren’t interested in it.”
While Girls Incorporated and many other organizations have launched efforts to counter these long-held stereotypes, most generally agree that the core effort to dismantle them should begin at home.
Weiss says parents should strive to expose their daughters to science and math situations away from school — when there’s no threat of being graded for what they know and what they don’t know.
For example, involving a daughter in figuring the family’s budget will not only give her experience with math, it also will show her a practical application for the skills she’s learning in school.
Lifting the hood of the family car and talking about what makes it run may nurture a basic curiosity. Arrange to have your daughter meet with a female engineer, doctor or scientist to talk about what her occupation is like, why she chose to pursue it and what it took to accomplish it.
Weiss urges parents to let go of their own preconceptions.
“Math and science can be fun and interesting and it’s never too late,” Weiss says. “Some parents say, ‘I was never any good at that,’ or, ‘I never liked it.’ But there are opportunities to try it out yourself — and you’ll also be helping your kids try it out.”
Most importantly, Weiss says, let your daughter know that you don’t believe in the stereotype that girls can’t perform at math and science as well as boys can.
“Having parents — particularly a mother — who doesn’t buy in to the stereotypes is one of the things that helps girls feel they can do well.”