In the next decade, colleges and universities across the nation may see an even greater increase in the number of students seeking to enroll in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. Statistics released by the University of Illinois Division of Management Information show that the number of undergraduates enrolled in engineering in fall of 2014 is up by almost 30 percent from 2009, for instance.
What’s even more significant is the increase in the number of young women who are drawn to potential careers in STEM — and it’s not just academia that has noticed the change. The popular card game retailer Cards Against Humanity has released an expansion pack of science themed cards whose proceeds go toward full-ride scholarships for women pursuing a degree in a STEM field.
Despite the definite strides numerous organizations and individuals have made in promoting STEM careers, the cultural norms surrounding the science and technology fields still deter a lot of young girls from satisfying their curiosity. Most young women still perceive the traditional STEM fields as being male-dominated.
These stereotypes are what the founders of MakerGirl hope to eradicate.
“I kind of wish I could’ve known what STEM was and the opportunities I could have had … I wish I had pushed toward it,” said Julia Haried.
Haried, along with Elizabeth Engele and Sophie Li, are the co-founders of MakerGirl— a for-profit organization dedicated to promoting STEM and leadership among young girls in the Champaign-Urbana community. Haried specifically became involved with the project after examining the cultural notion that women “can’t have it all.”
“There’s a huge lack of women in c-suite positions … there’s just a lot of gender inequality and a lot of stereotypes [women constantly have to overcome]. I’m interested in promoting women in executive positions and gender equality and bringing those two things to younger girls,” said Haried.
Learning Made Fun
The program is divided into six to seven sessions that last from an hour to an hour and a half. During each session, engineers on the MakerGirl staff create simple projects for the girls to design on the computer and later print using the 3-D printers located at U of I’s Business Instructional Facility. The objects — ranging from barrettes, to magnets to bracelets — are relatively simple enough to appeal to a girls of all ages and learning abilities, but complex enough that they can obtain a more comprehensive understanding of the work “real” engineers and software technicians tackle on a daily basis.
“[The girls] really enjoy [the projects] and they’re really good at them too. There’s also isn’t a huge difference in learning ability — a 7 year old can learn just as fast as you and I can; it’s not that hard for young girls to do,” said Haried. “We had to go through training ourselves and it was so hard for us, then they just pick it up and are like ‘okay, this is good.’ It was kind of surprising.”
In addition to the sessions, the organization also seeks to connect the young women with undergraduate students or recent graduates who are pursuing careers in STEM with the hope that the college students will serve as an example of a woman’s ability to pursue a career in what is seen as a traditionally male-dominated field while also embracing her unique femininity.
“It’s really valuable for the girls to see someone they can emulate and be, so we’re trying to provide role models that are similar to them,” said Haried. “Creating that physical representation in front of them [that] the women [in STEM] are fun makes the younger girls feel like, ‘wow, I really like this. During the sessions we’re also creating things that girls would use and that are ‘girly’ — we’re making things like barrettes and magnets and we use really fun colors, interactive colors to show that STEM can be an exciting thing.”
It All Starts Here
For Haried, MakerGirl also presents a unique position for her and her team to become more involved with the Champaign-Urbana community before she graduates with her masters in accounting next spring.
“For me it’s really fulfilling to have an impact in the community and to have an impact with the engineers on our team. A lot of them are freshmen and I think it’s hard for them to assimilate a little bit; with MakerGirl, the younger engineers are getting a lot out of it too ‘cause they’re finding a core group of people that really want engineering to happen for women, which isn’t necessarily what you see everyday walking on the engineering quad,” said Haried.
Caitlyn Deegan, a freshman at the U of I, says MakerGirl has helped her connect with numerous young women throughout the community and within her own major. Female undergraduates in the STEM programs at the U of I are highly encouraged to embrace their femininity whenever possible.
“You can definitely be super girly with what you wear,” said Deegan. “They actually teach us that as engineers, if you’re a woman in engineering, you should play up that you’re a woman.”
Engele, Li and Haried’s involvement with the program have also allowed them to think more about how technology and STEM impacts their own careers in the business field. Haried said it’s become increasingly more apparent how important and influential engineers are in the business world — from designing the specific programs used daily in the traditional office setting to the very coding that allows accounts and administrative assistants to access simple things like their work email.
“I definitely have more compassion for how hard engineering is and how hard engineers at this school work,” said Haried. “I’m also much more interested in creating a website, just to know how to do it because that’s one of the things we’re struggling with and it’s just so useful — it’s not necessarily that hard, it just requires some time. So definitely in my personal time I’m going to learn how to code.”
Haried and her partners hope that MakerGirl and other organizations will influence more young women to not only pursue careers in STEM, but realize that they don’t have to give up the “girly” things they enjoy either. Though the cultural norms surrounding the science and technology fields still produce significant obstacles for women to actively contribute to the science and technology fields, Haried believes the tides are slowly changing with the help of notable, successful women in all kinds of fields — the notion of “feminism” will hopefully no longer be something to fear.
“I definitely think it’s changing with all the women like Sheryl Sandberg and Anne-Marie Slaughter and Emma Watson and Karlie Kloss; a lot of women are taking on [gender inequality],” said Haried. “But this isn’t an ‘only women’ movement, it needs men’s support —young girls need their fathers as role models just as much as they need their mothers. I know it’s really hard for men to get into that conversation, but it’s also necessary for men to get in there and advocate for female equality.”