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.

Mary Flanagan’s career epitomizes just this sort of creative, interdisciplinary approach to STEM. She is the a professor in digital humanities at Dartmouth College and the founder of Tiltfactor, a conceptual game research lab that designs innovative board games and software that educate through play, explore issues of equity and social change, and challenge gender stereotypes.

Flanagan recently wrote in SFGate that while boys and girls play video games in equal numbers, women represent only 13 percent of the video game industry. Flanagan points to women as a source of “fresh voices and new ideas” in the industry and adds, “If we add more diverse voices, we will create vastly different games that reflect a diversity of thought and social values.”

Flanagan’s Tiltfactor lab develops games that aim higher than mere entertainment. Pox: Save the People challenges players to work collaboratively in teams in order to stop the spread of an unnamed deadly disease. While playing, they learn about public health, vaccines, and herd immunity. The game was originally commissioned by a public health organization that asked Flanagan to make something that could educate a user about vaccinations and the evolution of epidemics, but was more innovative than a vaccination brochure. Players must control the disease while protecting particularly vulnerable people (pregnant women, babies, and those in frail health who cannot be vaccinated) from becoming infected.

In order to foster innovators such as Graslie and Flanagan, however, STEM industries will need to make room for and support innovation that defies easy categorization. The challenge for anyone seeking to forge a brave new path through STEM careers, particularly ones that involve interdisciplinary study and practice, is the challenge of job stability. Kendall Hoyt, professor of technology and biosecurity at Thayer School of Engineering explained, “Interdisciplinary career paths are easier to create than they are to sustain, because there is not an established career trajectory and evaluation system.”

If we truly want to encourage girls to apply their promise and passion to STEM fields, STEM industries must leave room for the detours and for the meandering and bush-whacked routes that these women may forge toward innovation and a greater understanding of how our world works.