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Helena STEM Conference Promotes Women In Science

Penn State (CC-BY-NC-2.0)

Leaders from Montana’s business and education communities gathered at a "STEM" conference in Helena today to talk about how to encourage more women and girls to explore careers traditionally dominated by men. 

STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.  Those are four fields that the US is going to have to strengthen if it is to remain competitive in the world economy.   And those are also four fields that have long attracted more men than women.  

The Montana Girls STEM Collaborative brought together dozens of people at Helena College today. Representatives from businesses and schools around the state talked about encouraging more female students to consider careers in STEM fields. 

"Girls and women have typically been underrepresented in a lot of the stem fields,  particularly computer science and engineering," says Suzi Taylor, who leads the Montana Girls STEM Collaborative. "We’re here to find out ways that we can help more girls understand that STEM careers are appropriate and interesting and rewarding careers"

Jessi Smith, a psychology professor at Montana State University, says at the root of the problem is a deep-seated, and very common bias.  Simply put, almost everybody associates men, not women, with science or technology.

"These gender biases are now a little more subtle and they’re much harder to detect," Smith says.  "A lot of times people are using stereotypes and have this bias and they don’t even realize it.  All the research shows it’s pretty much equal.  Men and women develop these biases and stereotypes pretty early, and in large part it’s because as kids the image of a scientist is Einstein, and it still is Einstein."

Smith says changing this association – attracting women and girls to science, technology, engineering and math -- is going to require a cultural change.  That’s not simple or easy.  Many approaches are being tried. 

Dan Carter, public affairs director with Exxon Mobil’s refinery in Billings, says his company sees the benefit to attracting more women to engineering.

"One of the things that our company’s done in the last two years is really ratchet up teacher training programs," Carter said. "Recently this new website has been developed called which really encourages that sort of, pursuit of career paths that have the science and engineering core to them."

The news lately has been full of negative stories about women and their acceptance in the tech world – witness the recent "gamer-gate" controversy in which female journalists and game developers have been targeted for ridicule and shaming by male gaming enthusiasts.  On the other hand, more women are rising to the top of technology companies – examples include Sheryl Sandberg at Facebook, Marissa Mayer at Yahoo and Meg Whitman at Hewlett Packard.  That fact gives the leaders of the stem movement cause for optimism. 

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