When President Barack Obama signed a pair of executive orders aimed at bridging the gender pay gap earlier this month, he noted the importance encouraging women to enter science and technology fields.
According to the US News and World Report/Raytheon STEM index, jobs in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math are rapidly increasing in prevalence, spiking 30 percent from 2000 to 2013. The United States, however, is not currently producing enough workers with the skills required to take on many of these careers, the report states. And the gender gap could be a contributing factor—White House numbers from 2011 said women comprise just 24 percent of the STEM workforce. Some women at Duke are taking efforts to increase this figure.
Haiyan Gao, chair of the physics department and one of the only female chairs of a STEM department at Duke, said if the country is going to improve the gender gap, America’s early education system must change.
“It is very important to introduce [STEM subjects] to students early on,” she said. “[The fields] are difficult, but [they are] also a lot of fun. When you are very young, you are fearless.”
Coming from China, when Gao went to college, she had already studied physics for five years. She said her familiarity with the subject was important in her decision to pursue the field.
“When you are thinking about what you are going to major in, you are going to do something you are familiar with,” she said.
The leaders of Duke FEMMES are attempting to create that type of familiarity.
FEMMES—which stands for Females Excelling More in Math, Engineering and Science—is a student-run program dedicated to exposing young women to STEM subjects through workshops and other activities.
“What we are trying to do with our program is provide girls with female mentors in the STEM field,” said junior Janvi Shah, an associate FEMMES program director.
Gao said female mentors are important when it comes to inspiring girls to pursue STEM fields. She said the reason she became a physicist was because of the inspiration and encouragement her female physics teacher provided.
FEMMES works with Durham girls ranging from fourth to sixth grade. The organization runs an after-school program and a summer camp, as well as hosting an annual capstone event, among other programming. During the capstone event, the girls hear from women in the STEM field and do hands-on activities with female professors, graduate students and undergraduates in Duke labs.
Gao said although the STEM fields are challenging, it is important to show young women that they are worth the hard work.“Interesting or cool people can be scientists,” she said.