When most women are asked who their role models are, or who impacted their lives the most, many would respond, “My mother,” or “My grandmother.” This International Women’s Day, when I think of my female role models, I not only think of women like my mom, I also think of brave scientists, mathematicians and teachers who paved the way for women like myself who have chosen to pursue careers in STEM – Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.
First, there was Christa McAuliffe, who in 1985, was chosen to participate in the NASA Teacher Space Project, teaching lessons from the space shuttle Challenger. I’ll never forget January 28, 1986. I was so excited to watch Challenger launch and watch a woman, a teacher, go into outer space. But when Mrs. Kelly, my sixth grade teacher ran into the library screaming and crying, my excitement turned to tears. That brave teacher never made history as the first teacher in outer space, when the shuttle tragically crashed seconds after liftoff. Mrs. McAuliffe was a history teacher, not a science or math teacher. Nevertheless, her bravery had an impact on me to develop a curiosity about science and nature.
And then there is Voncile Middleton. The greatest math teacher ever! She was stylish and had a sense of humor that made fifth grade everything! I loved the way she explained mathematics in a way that flowed effortlessly. By far, her teaching style influenced me the most when I decided to become a middle school math teacher. I learned the art of using visuals, body movement, and developing relationships to teach mathematics. The way she taught always made me feel so confident as a math student, especially when I felt others – boys in particular – were better than me. As a teacher, I knew I had to instill this confidence in girls too. This desire led me to establish a nonprofit called The GEMS Camp – Girls interested in Engineering, Mathematics, and Science – whose mission is to build confidence in urban girls so that they will pursue STEM studies and careers.
Dr. Mae Jamison
My last shero was another astronaut, Dr. Mae Jamison. She was the first African-American to travel in space during my junior year of high school. I fondly recall how beautiful I thought she was as I glanced at a picture of her holding a space helmet in full astronaut uniform. At that time, I was beginning to figure out what I wanted to do with my life as grade school was soon coming to an end. No one in my family had ever gone to college, and I had no real talent, other than being a decent student in math and science. But for whatever reason, I just knew that if she could make it to outer space, then I could make it to college. What I did not know was that I would major in mathematics and eventually enter the fascinating world of STEM.
All of these women and others I’ve learned of along the way have truly changed me and made me develop a passion for math and science. I never thought I would be a teacher, but I’m sure these women had similar stories of career uncertainty. What prevails in the character of all of my STEM role models is the underlying story of courage, persistence, discipline, and passion. This International Women’s Day, I reflect on the gender gap in STEM fields worldwide that still exists today. According to UNESCO Institute for Statistics, less than 30% of the world’s researchers are women.1 Why has the needle only been pushed a few percentage points over the past thirty years?
I don’t have the answers, but what I do know is that ONE woman can make a life-changing impact on a girl. When that girl becomes a woman, her decisions will impact another girl, and the cycle of influence will continue for generations to come. It all starts with the power of ONE. Sometimes that seems hard to digest because I constantly feel inadequate and that sometimes my efforts in STEM aren’t really enough. But it’s days like today, when I join in with other women and men all around the world, saluting those women who have impacted us the most, that propel us to pay it forward.
Today, the gender gap in the STEM workforce is still prevalent, but thankfully the gap isn’t widening. Equal and equitable access to education for girls around the world is the only way to close this gap. Like Christa McAuliffe, Voncile Middleton, and Dr. Mae Jamison, each woman in STEM must continue to be examples in our communities and schools, so that girls can see us. So I remind you this International Women’s Day, continue to enter places where doors have been closed to women, to be brave and courageous. Most of all, continue to live a life of passion, pursuing your dreams, because girls all around the world are watching.