I, like many other students growing up at my age, saw becoming an engineer or doctor as a surefire route to a financially stable life.
I grew up in 1980s India against a background of a rapidly evolving economy centered around technology. My sights were set on medical school. I studied hard with my parents’ earnest support. However, despite my best efforts, I fell short of the cutoff on the highly competitive entrance exam, a turn of events that would lead me to a life I had never seen for myself.
I got a Master’s degree in chemistry and spent three years teaching in India, followed by a year and a half in Hong Kong. Then I came to the United States. My mind soared with the possibilities. I thought women here had it all – they could study whatever they wished and pursue any career they imagined. But reality came crashing down not long after my flight landed in Minneapolis.
As soon as I began teaching high school chemistry, I was shocked to learn of the stigma that girls in science face. From childhood to college age, girls are told that they are simply not good at math and science. If they do attempt to enter science, technology, engineering or math (STEM), they are surrounded by men who, at best, refuse to take them seriously and, at worst, subject them to sexual harassment for which they face few to no consequences. As professionals in science, women are constantly criticized by our male peers regardless of our accomplishments. By the time I had two daughters, who both showed early interest in science, I was determined not to allow social pressures to crush their dreams.
The lack of female role models is what prevents girls from entering STEM fields. When young girls do not see women in the fields they wish to enter, it sends the message that those careers are not for them. The vicious cycle perpetuates, and gender ratios never equalize.
For this reason my approach to teaching female students centers around community. In the classroom, I attempt to act as both a role model and a mentor to guide my students toward careers in science. By strengthening the ties among women in STEM, we can build a community that fosters growth and learning in young girls instead of suppressing it. We can show our daughters that math and science do not discriminate – their discoveries only lie in wait of female minds.
Alka Goyal teaches chemistry at Central High School in St. Paul.