The Young Politica: How Increasing Girls in STEM Programs Can Improve the Nation

In your junior high science classes, how many female scientific pioneers were in your textbook? I doubt that there were more than a handful.


In freshmen geometry class, did you learn about any famous female mathematicians? Probably not. I did not know about Sally Ride until I graduated from high school and even today, I could not tell you about any legendary female mathematicians.

Pioneering women have been historically absent from all school subjects, not just science and mathematics, since the dawn of the schoolhouse.

Even these days, when more women are going to college than men in this country, there remains a lack of women entering science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) career fields. The reasons for the interest gap are complicated, according to Christi Corbett, senior researcher for the American Association of University of Women.

“The direction of scientific inquiry is influenced by the people doing the work,” Corbett told me over the phone. Women comprise only 20% of the bachelor’s degrees in engineering and computer science fields. One can infer that women must then only make about 20% of the decisions in, say, scientific research.

Corbett helped compile Why So Few?—a comprehensive report that tries to solve why so few women are entering STEM fields. According to the studies in the report, there are still stereotypes which discourage girls from applying themselves towards STEM careers; girls tend to assess their abilities in STEM fields lower than boys do, even when they have similar scores; and girls tend to go into ‘helping’ professions (e.g. nursing), rather than higher-paying jobs in STEM fields that do not get as much recognition for helping others (e.g. engineering).

These girls’ lack of confidence and lack of encouragement by others even contributes to the gender wage gap, because STEM careers tend to have higher salaries than careers in social sciences and humanities.

“If there aren’t any women in STEM fields then there are ideas aren’t being brought to the table,” Christi Corbett said.

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So what’s being done to solve this problem? In the past year, the United States government has taken the initiative to plan new STEM projects and fund existing programs. I would have loved to have been a part of their new NASA G.I.R.L.S. program when I was younger!

AAUW is launching two of their STEM programs nationwide: Tech Savvy and Tech Trek. Tech Savvy is a conference that provides a day of workshops to sixth-to ninth-grade girls and their parents. Tech Trek takes 12-13 year old girls to college campuses, offering interactive classes and field trips with women professionals, offering real-life role-models to girls interested in the STEM fields.

It seems that though the shift to more female scientists and engineers may be slower than other fields women have infiltrated, it is improving.

“It’s nice to see that things are changing,” Corbett commented. “Women have infiltrated in all the majors and now they are finally beginning to see STEM role models.”

The efforts made to ensure that more girls enter these fields should be heavily supported, because an increase in high-paying STEM workers means a smarter nation and a wealthier nation.


Back By Popular Demand: WomenGirlsLadies at UMKC

WomenGirlsLadies made a return visit to UMKC last week, thanks to the invitation from Women’s Center Director Brenda Bethman. Rather than a single event, this year’s Starr Symposium featured a series of community conversations about the “Work/Life Balance in a Woman’s Nation. Deborah Siegel, Courtney Martin, Kristal Brent Zook, and I kicked off the event on September 28th with our WomenGirlsLadies panel, where we provided intergenerational perspectives on work and life choices.

“Nobody loves you better because you have used yourself up for them,” was just one of the points that resonated with the crowd.

Immersed in conversation about when we felt powerful

Here’s what Rita Arens has to say about the event over on BlogHer:

I tend to lack a governor. I would write myself into an early grave if it weren’t for my family.

Balance, which I’ve written about before, is tough whether or not you live with other people. I don’t think for one minute that single people don’t have balance issues — in fact, if I were living alone, I would actually have more balance issues than I do now, because I would have to depend on myself to tear me away from the blinking screen . . . I am trying lately to avoid using myself up.

Rita came up to me after the panel and told me that she wished she had had someone like me to talk to when she was 15. I told her that I wish I had had Gloria Feldt to talk to when I was 15!

Here’s what Talyn Helman has to say in her Young Feminist’s Point of View.

When I heard about this event, I’ll admit, I really thought it was going to be a man-bashing extravaganza . . . was completely wrong about the man-bashing. A lot of the conversation was actually directed at how women and men could share responsibilities and make relationships work, to help women balance their lives better. The speakers’ speeches and accomplishments were what really stayed with me after the symposium . . . These women have all risen to the top and achieved of their dreams. They are fantastic women for the new generation of feminists to emulate, and would serve as wonderful role models. Watching and listening to their conversation, and speaking to them myself, I find myself entering a new stage of social and self-awareness.

Left: WomenGirlsLadies co-panelist Kristal Brent Zook presenting at the afternoon workshop, while Courtney Martin looks on

Center: Deborah Siegel has her table engrossed in conversation at the workshop

Right: Tiffany Swinehart and her mom, my high school classmate Elsie Lesser were there–that’s why I’m smiling

More coverage of the Starr Symposium event at UMKC is available over on the WomenGirlsLadies blog. If you’re interested in bringing us to speak on your campus, or to your group, contact me. I’d love to hear from you!

WomenGirlsLadies on Ronnie Eldridge Show

Three of our WomenGirlsLadies inter-generational panel members, Deborah Siegel, Courtney Martin, and I (we were missing Kristal Brent Zook, who couldn’t change her teaching schedule to appear on the show) had a chance to talk with Eldridge and Co. host Ronnie Eldridge on her CUNY television show.

Click the photo above to see the video. We covered the inter-generational waterfront, from the state of the women’s movement, what happens when feminists disagree about political candidates, how we’re going to get work-life balance policies and actual practice, and what we all have in common to how the women’s movement has changed men too.

Our next public event will be Sept. 28 at the University of Missouri Kansas City. We’d love to come speak to your group too! Contact me and I’ll be delighted to give you more information.

Don’t Think Like an Elephant

Recently I was at the SeeJaneDo conference where I heard this story. I was so moved by it that I immediately had to include it in my forthcoming book about women’s relationship with power–No Excuses, to be published in October–despite having already having turned in what were supposed to be the last changes.

It’s said that when a baby elephant is being trained, she is tied to a post almost immediately after birth. During the first few weeks of life, she attempts to break free of her restraints, but she’s not strong enough. So she comes to believe she can’t get away from what is holding her back even after she has grown large and plenty powerful to uproot the post entirely. As a consequence, even as an adult, she remains tied to the post due to an internally motivated behavior that is no longer rooted in external reality.

Wow, that just perfectly describes so many of the women in my generation, including myself. If women want to embrace our power we must reject baby elephant thinking and throw off the shackles of learned behavior that no longer serves us. And when older women talk with younger ones, they might have no reference point for the barriers we older ones are all too familiar with. No wonder there can be strains on communication across generations!

One of the most heartening differences I have found among the generations is that the younger women are, the less likely they are to hold such false restraints in their minds. But the older women are, the more likely they are to have a sense of engagement with the women’s movement that has fought for the very advances that created the amazing possibilities women today have to do or be whatever they choose. Without a movement, it is easy to start going backward. History is replete with advances that turned into retreats because people didn’t know how they got there.

All of this is why I feel the conversation engendered by WomenGirlsLadies is so important, and I invite you to participate in it here,  on the WomenGirlsLadies blog or in person if we are so fortunate as to be invited to your university or organization.

Why Do I Consider Myself a Feminist?

Rita and 4 generations

Thanks to my great friend and an activist who has always put her convictions into action, Rita Harkins Dickinson for this guest post. She wrote this moving personal essay after attending a WomenGirlsLadies inter-generational panel.

After attending the Feldt-Barbanell Women of the World Lecture at Arizona State University recently, I have questioned if I can honestly call myself a feminist.  I always thought of myself as one, but do I deserve to wear the badge?  The remarkable women on the panel had defining moments that justified them considering themselves feminists.  I don’t have one “aha” moment.  My sense of feminism is more organic.

My childhood was glorious.  I am a Boomer, but June Cleaver was only a fantasy character on television.  Conversely, I didn’t have militant women in my life either.  Women surrounding me were strong, independent, and smart.  Although our family is small, I had eight significant female relatives within reach:  my mother, my grandmothers, my great-grandmother, my aunt, two great aunts and a great-great aunt.

Most of the significant influences in my childhood were subtle, yet extremely fond memories.  I remember attending graduate classes with my mother, taking colored pencils and newsprint (we weren’t allowed to have coloring books – they would stifle creativity).  We spent a great deal of time outdoors; we went to the beach, and we camped every summer.  None of this is remarkable, except that my mother had survived polio when pregnant with my older brother, resulting in paralysis from the waist-down.

One of my earliest memories is of serving cookies at Red Cross blood drives while my mother volunteered.  And I remember when I was about nine years old, a man at church said something about my mother being a paraplegic.  I assured him that she was a Christian.  I guess I had never heard the word.

I never felt my family was different from others until a few years ago when conducting a class on “the changing face of the family” and we featured families who were traditionally considered atypical.  Talk about an “aha” moment!

There are those who resent the Americans with Disabilities Act and the adaptations that provide accessibility to those who have physical challenges, and there are those who park in handicapped accessible parking places.  They have no idea!  Looking back, I remember my mother having to park far from entrances, struggling to open heavy doors while balancing on her crutches, navigating turnstiles and very small public restroom stalls.  One of the aspects I considered a treat but now realize was a big hassle was walking to the deep recesses of public buildings to find the freight elevator, gaining access, closing those heavy gates, and chugging up and down to access upper and lower levels of those structures.  And I remember when children (and some adults) would stare at my mother’s full braces and crutches.  She would calmly explain that she needed help walking.

My mother was never a victim.  She drove, she worked outside the home, and she certainly carried her weight as a wife and mother.  She was college educated and yet was unable to apply her education because women who were not considered “able-bodied” were also considered unable to work in the professional arena.  It wasn’t until I lived on my own that I realized most fathers didn’t do the grocery shopping.

Why do I believe in health care reform?  My family did not have health insurance when polio struck.  My mother, a graduate of a prestigious university, spent months in an iron lung along with hundreds of others in a public facility.

Why do I believe in civil rights?  I remember, on a very deep level, how my very intelligent mother was treated as “less than.”  Looking back, it was a lifelong lesson in discrimination.

Why do I believe all people who love each other deserve rights?  I know there are those who questioned how my father could stay with my mother after she was paralyzed.

Why do I believe in reproductive rights?  I have personally heard people say that people who are physically disabled should not have children.  Thank goodness my parents didn’t feel that way!

I know I am a pacifist.  I know I am a humanist.  I know I am an activist.  I know, as trite as it may sound, that struggling teaches the deepest lessons.  Did I have to struggle?  No.  Did I know my mother was struggling?  No, not often.  Does it hurt to the core when exclusive comments are made?  Absolutely.

Recently I have been concerned that the lessons of the Seventies have been lost.  Perhaps it is because those who did not struggle or did not witness struggles take for granted the progress made in the second half of the twentieth century.

Am I a feminist?  I hope so.  Can I justify that?  I hope so.  Do I put my thoughts and words into action?  I hope so.

Fathers Day Edition: Daughters Make the Political Personal for Dads

Obama’s “Promoting Strong Fathers” speech and town hall last week was not just great role modeling and a politically smart thing to do, it had some very poignant moments that scratched the surface, albeit gently, of the president’s quest to know his father. He came to terms with that missing piece of his own identity long ago, as chronicled in his book, Dreams of My Father.

Still, I couldn’t help but feel sadness in my heart when he talked about his absent father, even as he expressed appreciation for his mother’s struggles and how his loving grandparents cared for him.

L-R: Gloria, Deborah, Kristal, Courtney

I was watching the town hall because fathers were much on my mind as I prepared for yesterday’s “Dads, Dudes and Doing It” panel, along with WomenGirlsLadies co-panelists, Courtney Martin, Kristal Brent Zook, and Deborah Siegel-Acevedo. Together, we span five decades in age and we speak through both gender and generational lens.

My friends called my father "Big Max" because it described both his height--6' 3"--and his personality
We had a lot of fun as we always do with our panels, but it was nevertheless emotional for each of us in different ways to be talking about our fathers. I’m the panel’s senior citizen, and I was missing my daddy who died almost 15 years ago. I speculated that he never connected his personal declaration that his daughters could do “anything their pretty little heads desire” with the political movement of women that a decade or two later would turn the political system upside down to make sure we actually could aspire without legal impediment to whatever heights we wanted.

That change is why Deborah’s story could include her nurturing father’s impact on her growing up to the twins she and Marco will soon welcome into the world:

Like the handful of other liberated dads in the neighborhood married to awakened middle-class women then heading back for more advance degrees, my father got me ready for school on mornings when my mother left home before dawn.

Similarly, Courtney talks about how her feminist father resigned from an all-male private club when she was born in 1979 because he didn’t want to belong to an organization that wouldn’t allow his daughter to be a member.

Kristal riveted us with her touching story of having used her newly hatched journalism skills in the 1990’s to track down the father who had been absent from her life almost since birth and persuading him to attend her graduation with a PhD at age 27.

I grew up in an all-female, working-class, African-American household…the unspoken messages we received as girls were crystal clear: Men don’t stay. And even if they do, they don’t necessarily help the situation. Women are stronger, better. We have to be. Independence is vital.

We panelists always talk about the unfinished business remaining to achieve gender parity and social justice for women. Courtney told the men to read Michael Kimmel [author most recently of Guyland] and Jackson Katz and to work with women on:

…creating the infrastructure necessary for all of us to lead whole lives—characterized by fulfilling work and family lives. Momsrising should partner with Dadsrising. Men should advocate for paternity leave policies in their workplaces and actually take the time off. All of us have to work towards a healthcare system that doesn’t leave women picking up the pieces when children and elders are sick.

Questions from our audience weren’t so different from those the president received, mostly on the practical, human level. We were honored to have in our midst journalist and author Jimmie Briggs, who has committed himself to addressing gender-based violence globally with his latest book, The Wars Women Fight , and by starting the ambitious Man Up initiative.

Man Up is a coalition that uses soccer and hip hop to engage boys and girls in figuring out how to eliminate gender violence in their own cultures. In the Congo and Nigeria, they’re working with youth to confront rape as a weapon of war; in Guatemala and Mexico, they’re tackling femicide; in the Balkans, trafficking and prostitution, in Europe and the U.S., domestic violence. “Whatever form of gender violence is most threatening and pernicious in one country or region, that’s where we start.”

Briggs, a divorced father very much part of his daughter Mariela’s life, wrote his book as a collection of letters to her to help arm her with the strength she will need as she matures, to fight on her own behalf and for other women in the world.

At the town hall, President Obama opined, “No rule that says you have to repeat your father’s mistakes,” and he went on to talk about how when his daughters were born he made a pledge to them to be there for them.

His words to fathers struggling to do their best: “It’s about showing up and sticking with it.”

Both in the political and personal sense, that’s the best possible advice.

How Are Gender Politics Changing?

While in some quarters gender wars continue to rage, Father’s Day 2009 is bringing us stories of dramatic changes in the politics of marriage, relationships, and parenthood.

USA Today calls it a “New daditude”: Today’s fathers are hands-on, pressure off and says:

Today’s fathers may well take parenting as seriously as their mates, but unlike many moms, dads don’t view it as a competitive sport. Instead, the new attitude of 21st-century fatherhood is hands-on and involved, but with a hint of playfulness

Hmm. I wonder how moms feel about that comparison. A little, um, competitive maybe? Check out this article–it takes on exactly the kind of changing gender roles issues we WomenGirsLadies will discuss Saturday, June 20 at 2pm at the Brooklyn Museum. It’s called “Dads, Dudes, and Doing It” and we want your voice in the conversation! All the infos’s here. Come on down!

And if you’re not in the New York area, tell us what you think anyway–leave your comments here and I’ll be sure to share them with the audience on Saturday.

Update: Do Women’s Gains Make Women’s History Month Ho Hum?

Hello! If you thought maybe the answer to this question I posed a couple of days ago is “yes”, take a gander at how the NY observer wrote up the WomenGirlsLadies’ upcoming event March 18 @ the 92Y Tribeca! Elizabeth Hines is the fourth member of our panel. Come join us. Bring your thoughts about feminism’s unfinished business–and your man-bat, just in case someone from the Observer shows up 🙂

WomenGirlsLadies and Feminism’s Unfinished Business

What’s a WomanGirlLady?

Each member and (plural) the whole intergenerational panel that goes on the road together. Last week it was Courtney Martin and Kristal Brent Zook plus the amazing Maria Teresa Peterson (head of Voto Latino, who stepped admirably in for our regular–and also amazing–fourth, Deborah Siegel) at the University of Missouri Kansas City, invited by UMKC Women’s Center’s supercharged director Brenda Bethman–thanks, Brenda!

Women, Girls, Ladies: A Fresh Conversation Across Generations is a traveling panel promoting feminist dialogue across the generations and across the land. We speak at campuses and organizations (and are available to come to YOU! Rebecca Rosenberg is your contact to book us). While there are pundits who like to declare feminism dead with some regularity, we women spanning ages 20-something to 60-something tell our personal-is-political stories about how we each came to be feminists and what we think the movement’s political-is-personal unfinished businsess is.

While in Kansas City, I appeared on the iconic Walt Bodine’s KCUR radio show talking about the current politics of feminism if you want to take  a listen.

Here’s an excerpt of Courtney’s recap of the WGL’s time in KC from our WomenGirlsLadies blog:

First we did a very interactive, intergenerational workshop over at University of Missouri-Kansas City where we met fascinating local women (many of them named Linda?!) from the YWCA, The American Association of University Women, the incredible UMKC Women’s Center staff and board, and so many more.

One of the big insights that came up from that experience was a question:

When do we, as feminists, confront sexism directly and when do we deal with it indirectly instead?

It seemed like so many of the experiences and anecdotes that women of all generations brought to the table were focused on this difficult negotiation. In order to get the progress we so desire, do we swallow some of our ire when a sexist guy says something inane? Or is it our responsibility as loud and proud feminists to call him out regardless of the fall out?

As if that conversation wasn’t rich enough, we still had the big event to come. Yesterday evening we had a panel in honor of Ruth Margolin, Founding Director of the UMKC Women’s Center. There was a huge crowd (300+) in the absolutely beautiful Kansas City Public Library-Plaza Branch. After wine and cheese we migrated into the newly renovated auditorium and got to hear some wonderful words about Ruth Margolin’s fiery character. Apparently she was never afraid of being a loud and proud feminist! It was so special to be having our dialogue in honor of her legacy.

The audience brought up a range of issues; everything from women in the military, pay equity, body image, abortion, Clinton’s infidelity scandal, Sarah Palin, and racial tensions within feminism were a part of the conversation…

*The Kansas City Star did a great write up of the event. So did The Pitch, Kansas City’s weekly, but check out the title! “Meow Mix”? Come on people, this is exactly the point of our panel. When men disagree, it’s called a disagreement. When women disagree, it’s called a cat fight. Thank goodness we’re reclaiming the frame!

Reclaiming the frame is clearly one of the items on our unfinished business list, but the reason for doing that isn’t to just to set the record straight; it’s about the social justice mission in all those issues brought up by the audience, a work in progress that’s vibrantly alive. (Take that, Rush Limbaugh.)

Update on Tuesday, November 18, 2008 at 05:27PM by Registered CommenterGloria Feldt

Did you all see this from The Daily Beast?

In particular the following findings (and how ironic that Mark Penn’s firm–Penn, Hillary’s obnoxious campaign consultant who gave her very bad advice–did the polling; nevertheless, this is important to consider):

Voters reject the term and the category of being a “feminist,” with only 20% of women willing to use that word about themselves. Nor do they want their daughters to become feminists—only 17% of voters said they would welcome their daughters using that label.

But while “feminism” seems to connote a radicalism out of the mainstream, most women have very definite beliefs about the equality of the sexes. Older women believe by nearly 2/1 that when given an equal opportunity, women will succeed at whatever they do. Younger women agree but more of them (43%) feel that men and women have different strengths and weaknesses in what they can do well.

Girlw/pen summarized other salient stats from the poll in a wonderfully named post, “Post Hillary, Post Sarah, Women Are PO’d”:

  • 48% of women thought Hillary Clinton received fair media treatment and only 29% believed Sarah Palin was treated fairly. In contrast, nearly 8 in 10 voters thought the press gave fair treatment to Barack Obama and Joe Biden.
  • More than two-thirds of women said they were being treated unfairly in the workplace (68%).

The article suggests what the WGL’s have been saying:

The poll suggests that there is tremendous potential for an expanded, revitalized, and updated women’s equality movement

Well, yeahhhh.

Picture Worth 1001 Words: Bush’s Legacy on Reproductive Rights

This impromptu collage just happened to be on the desk of Dr. Jim Hill, director of the Honors and Centralis Scholarship Programs at Central Michigan University when I spoke there on March 17 with the WomenGirlsLadies panel. Could there be a more perfect representation of where politics gets personal?