Panel: It's Important That Women Learn STEM Can Be Fun

Not enough women coming through the ranks in science, technology, engineering and math education.

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Women remain vastly underrepresented in STEM fields. According to a 2011 investigation by the Department of Commerce, women held less than one quarter of all science, technology, engineering and math jobs, despite holding nearly half of all jobs nationwide. Boosting that share is both a matter of shifting the mindsets of young women and also of encouraging girls from a young age, say top women academic and business leaders. Part of the reason women remain a minority in math and the sciences is that the thinning out process starts early.

"Women start out taking STEM courses, but as you move up the ladder that percentage who stick with it becomes smaller and smaller," said Maria T. Zuber, vice president for research and professor of geophysics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, during a panel discussion on women in STEM at the U.S. News 2013 STEM Conference.

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For that reason, she said, it's important to convey to young women that math and science can be fun and exciting.

"I tell women when I speak to them, 'How could you not want to be like me?'" she added, pointing out that in addition to having a happy family life, she helps to launch rockets.

Much of the best encouragement comes in the form of mentoring partnerships, said another participant.

"Throughout my career, having mentors has really been the key to my success," said Darlene Miller, CEO of Permac Industries, a precision manufacturing company. Guidance from older and wiser advisors helped her stay persistent when others in the industry told her she could not be successful in manufacturing because she was a woman.

Boosting women's participation in STEM fields is not simply a question of boosting diversity. Many employers have reported a shortage of workers in STEM fields. More women in STEM would boost the pool of potential workers and might also help to diminish the wage gap between men and women.

Jully Burau, chief engineer for full-size trucks at General Motors, said she believes that women engineers can also help boost her company's sales.

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"What better way to understand what women want and how they use vehicles, what they're looking for, their wants, needs, than to have women involved in the design, engineering, of those vehicles?" she said.

Making sure any student -- male or female -- is capable of taking on a STEM job, however, requires enthusiasm, she added: "In order to do well at something, you have to be passionate about it."

Mentorship and passion are important, but improving women's participation in STEM may also require a shift in cultural attitudes, said one participant, particularly the attitude that math and science are inherently difficult subjects.

"As a nation, one of the things that I see that concerns me is that we shy away from the things that are challenging and that are hard and the idea that if it's hard it must be bad," said Erika Ebbel Angle, CEO and Founder of Science from Scientists, noting that advanced studies in fields like English or history likewise require hard work.

"No matter what it is you want to do, if you want to do it well, it's hard. And that's ok," she said.

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