This Is Not Your Father's STEM Job

Instead of following traditional paths, women are using their science, technology, engineering, and math degrees to create new careers.
Jessica Hill/AP Photo

Much has been written about the need to encourage women to embark on careers in STEM—science, technology, engineering, and math—and fill the demand for future STEM employment. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand recently pointed out that “only 26 percent of STEM workers in the United States are women” despite the fact that they comprise nearly half of the U.S. workforce. Michelle Obama has proclaimed,

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.

But what if girls bring a different perspective with them, and choose to navigate their STEM careers differently than boys? What if the traditional paths created and well-worn by generations of men are not the same paths girls follow as they apply their newfound skills to STEM fields? There are plenty of women out there engaged in traditional jobs in science, technology, engineering, and math, but many are forging novel, interdisciplinary, STEM-based careers that blur categories and transcend agenda.

Emily Graslie, scientist, educator, artist, and host of the popular YouTube show The Brain Scoop, recently produced an episode about women in STEM fields, “Where My Ladies At?” Graslie’s own career provides a clue to the location of some of those ladies. They are out there, innovating, designing, researching, and teaching, but because some women in STEM have opted for careers that defy categorization within the acronym, they can be harder to identify.

Graslie is a great example of this new species of STEM practitioners. She followed her mother’s advice, “Never let anyone make you feel as though you need to fulfill an alternate agenda if what you really want is an education.” Graslie parlayed her degree in art, passion for natural science, talent for writing, and experience in museums into a job of her own invention, the Field Museum of Chicago’s first-ever Chief Curiosity Correspondent.

When I asked her about her unusual path to STEM fame, Graslie noted that the evolution of her career makes perfect sense to her.

I'm a tactile learner. I need to hold something and examine it in my hands before I start to get an idea of what's going on. The observable information of something can inspire just as many questions as if you had read all about that same object in a book and never seen it in life. I can read about a meteorite falling from space and landing on our planet but until I hold that item in my hands and look at it I can't fully understand the gravity (no pun intended) of its significance.

Graslie rejects a staid and inflexible definition of science and the scope of the careers women can pursue in its study. In a conversation with Field Museum mammal preparer Anna Goldman, Graslie notes, “Science is a really intimidating word that some of us just need to get over, already. It’s almost a buzzword, [and] it seems to put restrictions on what naturally comes to humans, being curious.”

If our efforts to encourage women’s curiosity and passion for STEM succeed, we need to be prepared for the way female perspectives and approaches could expand the definition and scope of what it means to be STEM professionals. Because women have traditionally been excluded from these disciplines, and because their fresh eyes allow them to make connections between fields, many women are launching careers, and even entire industries, based on a flexible and creative definition of what it means to be a scientist, artist, or engineer. K-12 schools have done a particularly poor job of integrating study across STEM fields and encouraging creativity and interdisciplinary connections. We continue to teach science, technology, and math in isolation, as if they have little to do with one another. This sort of compartmentalized approach runs counter to what we know about effective learning: Students need to be able to connect content knowledge and concepts to real-world applications in order to develop mastery and passion for a subject.

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Jessica Lahey is a contributing writer for The Atlantic and an English, Latin, and writing teacher. She writes about education and parenting for The New York Times and on her website, and is the author of the forthcoming book The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed.

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