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On Earth Day, April 22, 2013, five women scientists from the science center gave presentations and answered questions for girls and parents at Gateway School in Santa Cruz, California.

How can we inspire girls to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM)? An informal group of scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) Pacific Coastal and Marine Science Center (PCMSC) decided to help. On Earth Day, April 22, 2013, five women scientists from the science center gave presentations and answered questions for girls and parents at Gateway School in Santa Cruz, California.

Although girls perform as well as or better than boys on many indicators of educational achievement, women lag behind men in STEM careers. A report published in 2011 by the Department of Commerce contains these statistics:

  • 24 percent – Scientists and engineers who are women
  • 28 percent – Tenure-track STEM faculty who are women
  • 41 percent – Ph.D.s in STEM fields earned by women

(For the record, approximately 40 percent of STEM jobs at the USGS Pacific Coastal and Marine Science Center are held by women.)

The gap between women and men starts early. Whereas girls and boys perform at similar levels in mathematics and science in elementary school, girls show less-positive attitudes toward science and have fewer out-of-school science experiences than boys. According to a report by the Commission on the Advancement of Women and Minorities in Science, Engineering and Technology Development, by eighth grade, only half as many girls as boys show an interest in STEM careers.

"If we're going to out-innovate and out-educate the rest of the world, we've got to open doors for everyone. We need all hands on deck, and that means clearing hurdles for women and girls as they navigate careers in science, technology, engineering and math."

- First Lady Michelle Obama,
September 26, 2011

Scientists at the PCMSC, many of them parents, started discussing how they could inspire girls to pursue STEM careers. For the presentation at Gateway School, they set up a panel of very accomplished USGS women in STEM to discuss their exciting and fulfilling careers and inspire girls to pursue similar paths. The women shared their experiences, answered questions about what they do and how they got there, and described some of their successes and struggles. The panel members were: Amy Draut, Ph.D., geologist; Andrea O’Neill, M.S., meteorologist-oceanographer; Li Erikson, Ph.D., engineer; Nadine Golden, M.A., geographer; and Nancy Prouty, Ph.D., geochemist. Curt Storlazzi, Ph.D., a geologist whose daughter attends Gateway School, promoted the program.

“I enjoyed the experience,” said O’Neill. “It’s good to know there are engaged parents and eager girls out there who are just starting to figure out their path in life and want to learn about the varied courses ahead of them.”

Golden said, “An interesting aspect that I did not anticipate was the level of personal honesty that we were all able to share during the discussion about barriers girls face to STEM careers. Some barriers are well-known, documented, and observed, but there are many more that are subtle and difficult to define.”

One girl said she was excited to learn that so many women could do such fun and interesting things outdoors for their jobs. A parent said her daughter was happy to learn that she could make maps for a career. Eight girls attended with their parents around dinnertime. Storlazzi said, “I hope next time we get a time slot during school hours.”

The informal USGS group plans to refine the format on the basis of feedback from educators, parents, and girls; expand to other schools in the area; repeat their presentation as girls move through school; and involve the approximately 30 other women in STEM at the PCMSC.