The untapped potential of young women in natural sciences

LEAF mentor Elsa Flores with Jenifer Criollo, Janina Georges and Maylani Velazquez
© Heather Perry for The Nature Conservancy. LEAF mentor Elsa Flores looks at a healthy oyster cluster with her interns Jenifer Criollo, Janina Georges and Maylani Velazquez in a marine sanctuary in Rhode Island.

By Brigitte Griswold, The Nature Conservancy’s Director of Youth Programs

There have been many stories in the media recently highlighting the lack of women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) fields. The lack of women in science doesn't just put women at a disadvantage, but our country as a whole. To remain a global economic power, we must work to ensure that more young women not only excel academically in science, but also receive the early support needed to envision themselves succeeding in this male dominated field. And, since four out of five STEM students decide their major in high school or earlier, we cannot wait until students get to college. The earlier young women are exposed to and supported in their pursuit of science, the more likely they are to overcome existing obstacles later in their professional lives.

To address the scale of the STEM crisis, it’s going to take a village. No one organization can achieve the change we need to make alone. The good news is, more business, non-profit, and public sectors are joining forces to address the crisis of women in science - while simultaneously addressing the social and emotional support young people need to bolster self-efficacy, grit, and determination to succeed in challenging career fields.

Empowering more young women to pursue STEM career paths is important because in the United States women make up over 50% of the population, but only 25% of women pursue careers as scientists and engineers. Yet there is a clear demand for future professionals in the natural sciences - environmental science jobs alone are expected to grow by 25% by 2016 – the fastest among the sciences.

There is also an economic benefit for young women who choose to pursue these paths. While wage inequality also exists in STEM jobs, it is a smaller wage gap relative to men. Women in STEM jobs earn 33% more than those in non-STEM occupations. The gender wage gap in STEM jobs is roughly 14%, while the gender wage gap for non-STEM jobs is 21%.

For all of these reasons and many more, The Nature Conservancy and The Toyota USA Foundation, have partnered with environmental high schools around the country to expose and empower more young women in the natural sciences through the Leaders in Environmental Action for the Future (LEAF) Program. Guided by leading scientists and mentors specialized in the field of positive youth development, LEAF provides young people with hands-on experiences that bring science to life both inside and outside the classroom. A recent survey of program participants found that approximately 64% of female respondents are now pursuing STEM degrees – over two times higher than the national average. And perhaps more importantly, studies revealed a significant increase in self-efficacy amongst participating females.

In the video below you’ll meet Hannah Jaris, whose passion for science was launched through early immersion in the natural world. Through the LEAF program, Hannah pushed herself out of her comfort zone into new challenges and onto a professional path in the sciences at the age of 16. She graduated from Smith College in 2009 with a degree in Molecular Biology and Environmental Science & Policy and just received her Master’s degree from Columbia University in Conservation Biology, focusing on marine and coastal systems. Hannah is now conducting research into the genetic differences between wild, restored, and farmed oyster populations – groundbreaking research that could have economic as well as environmental impacts. Her work represents the first of its kind in southern New England to inform the future of oyster conservation and restoration programs.

While there is certainly still a lot of work to be done to achieve equity in science fields for women, I am inspired by women like Hannah who are paving the way for a new generation.

Learn more about the students LEAF serves at www.nature.org/LEAF.

Tags: Education | Green Youth

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