Let Them Stem: Why Can’t She?

“One of the things that I really strongly believe in is that we need to have more girls interested in math, science and engineering. We’ve got half the population that is way underrepresented in those fields and that means that we’ve got a whole bunch of talent … not being encouraged the way they need to.”

President Barack Obama

Jenna Carpenter tells it like this. If the cure for cancer currently rests in the mind of a 12-year-old girl, the odds are we’ll never find it.

It’s likely, Carpenter says, that this girl will have heard numerous times in her young life — from pre-K through elementary school — that science, engineering and math are for boys. And by junior high, those “confidence-zapping stereotypes” will have taken their toll. Those determined girls who do stay with it will stand out among the crowd, and that’s not a good thing. They’ll be labeled as brainy or nerdy. They’ll be ridiculed rather than encouraged.

“It’s no wonder we lose so many bright, capable young women in junior high,” Carpenter says. “They turn away from math and science at the very time in their lives when opportunities in those areas begin to open up for them.”

Carpenter delivered this cancer-cure hypothetical onstage in a 2013 TED Talk (Technology, Entertainment and Design) as associate dean for administration and strategic initiatives and professor of mathematics for Louisiana Tech University’s College of Engineering and Science. 

Now the founding dean of Campbell University’s School of Engineering (to launch this fall), Carpenter is a national voice for women looking to enter STEM fields and a leading expert on the biases young women face in their STEM education and in the workforce. The vice president of the Mathematical Association of America and chair of the National Academy of Engineering Grand Challenge Scholars Program, Carpenter was named by Dreambox Learning as one of 10 “Women in STEM who Rock” in 2015, joining celebrities like Chelsea Clinton, actresses Mayim Bialik and Danica McKellar, and Yahoo! CEO Marissa Meyer.  

In other words, Carpenter knows her stuff. And the research and statistics — numbers she’s memorized and eager to share with anyone wanting the truth — are troubling. Although they make up about half of the working population, women in the U.S. account for only 26 percent of STEM workers, according to a 2011 report by the Census Bureau. Only 13 percent of the nation’s engineers are women — and the current percentage of women in computer professions (27 percent) has actually fallen since the 1990s. A recent Scholastic Teachers Magazine article featuring Carpenter reported that only 5 percent of girls between the ages of 8 and 17 expressed an interest in engineering, compared to 24 percent of boys. Nearly three quarters of boys between 13 and 17 found computer science to be a good possible major in college, while only a third of the girls that age agreed. 

The statistics don’t end there, and they’re no secret either. Google “women in STEM” and you’ll find no shortage of websites housing these numbers and the potential solutions. In 2013, President Obama’s White House Council on Women and Girls partnered with the Office of Science and Technology Policy to work toward increasing encouragement and participation of women in STEM fields and supporting efforts to retain women in the workforce. 

The last five years have marked the beginnings of an important cultural shift, and if women — who currently make up nearly 60 percent of U.S. college students — are to even the playing field when it comes to engineering, computers, physics or astronomy, society as a whole will need to change. 

“We’re the ones — whether on purpose or unintentionally — who are perpetuating those antiquated, inaccurate and, to be perfectly honest, damaging stereotypes that girls can’t do it,” Carpenter said on a stage against a black backdrop for her TED Talk video that’s been viewed more than 34,000 times. “It’s all on us.”

Looking back at the moment she stepped onto the national stage and became more than just an advocate, Carpenter says she led off her 12-minute lecture with the future cure for cancer because she wanted her audience to know why all of this matters. Cancer touches all demographics, and if gender gets in the way of its eventual cure? Shame on us.

“If we want that cure for cancer to be there when we need it, we need to work at getting the message out that not only can our girls excel at engineering and science, but we need them to excel at engineering and science,” Carpenter says. “We need them to dream big to make the world a better place.

“The dreams of that young girl aren’t just the key to building her future. They’re the keys to building our future.”