Pointing the way to a clean energy future

We Need More STEM-enists

I am part of the 19 percent. That is, the 19 percent of physics majors in the U.S. who identify as female. Although physics is one of the lowest ranked subjects when it comes to gender parity, these trends are seen across the board in many STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) subjects. Even the percentages at my university,  Carnegie Mellon, which was recently named the number one “STEM-enist” school in the country, are markedly low, especially considering the praise the school received for its 2016 graduating class of engineering, which was about 30% women.  While statistics on gender for my major, physics,  were not even published, judging by the makeup of my classes, it’s far from 50/50. It’s no surprise that these numbers are also reflected in the environmental movement, which draws upon professionals with  STEM backgrounds. Only about 30% of environmental nonprofit leaders are women and when you delve into the more technical side it gets even worse. Only 6% of the technical staff in the energy sector are women.,

Unfortunately, women are experiencing far more than 30% of the negative effects from climatic changes. The effects they experience are often different and sometimes more severe because of their gender and societal norms. Women and children are more likely to die in natural disasters than men, and in many households, women are the providers of food, water, and energy, all of which are growing scarcer as climate disruption takes its toll. When faced with dirty water and polluted air, it is women who stay home with their sick children, causing a loss of income that inhibits the ability to move away from the source of pollution. Women are negatively affected by climate disruption all over the world, but without  the agency to combat climate change, women are dealt a double blow.

But, because women tend to be impacted at a greater degree by climate change and pollution than men, they also tend to be better invested in solutions. It’s not just that women are more likely to accept climate science. It’s that women are more likely to do something about it.

It should come as no surprise that a Planned Parenthood clinic, a women’s health clinic, in Flint, Michigan, was one of the first places to start testing the polluted water. And that’s just one example. Women in Congress vote more pro-environment than men and company boards with more women are more likely to invest in clean energy, focus on sustainable packaging, reduce the carbon footprint of their products, and develop products that help customers mitigate the impacts of climate change. Studies show that people even perceive caring about the environment as feminine.

But because of gender parity problems, the energy sector, a sector key to solving climate change, seriously lacks women.  As my fellow STEM majors might put it, if the equation is to solve climate change, renewable energy is the solution. But discounting women’s voices within the energy sector is just like ignoring a key variable. Solving the equation will be more difficult, if not impossible, and the solutions will be less complete.

According to Lorena Aguilar, the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s global senior gender adviser, “Evidence from many sectors suggests that integrating women into all levels of the energy value chain will lead to more effective clean energy initiatives, unleash greater return on investments and expand emission reduction opportunities.”

Just look at these key contributions from STEM women that help bring clean, renewable energy to those without access to electricity:

  • Abeer Seikaly designed portable homes for refugees, including those displaced by climate disruption, that collect rainwater, fold up for easy transport, and store solar energy.

  • Thirteen-year-old Maanasa Mendu invented a device to bring affordable wind energy to those without access to electricity.

  • Jessica Matthews designed a motion-based, off-grid renewable-energy–powered soccer ball that with just 30 minutes of play provides three hours of electricity to an LED light.

  • Hannah Herbst designed a probe that generates power and fresh water by harvesting it from ocean currents.

Now come the big questions: Why aren’t there more women studying STEM and how do we change this? Starting in elementary school, girls and boys have about equal interest in STEM subjects, but as time goes on, boys’ interest stays mostly level, while girls’ interests drops off every year, all the way through receiving their PhDs and getting tenure. This is called “the leaky pipeline.” The most concerning statistic is that only 24% of women who receive STEM degrees go on to professions in a STEM field. That’s not a leaky pipe, that’s a gushing, very broken pipe. Hundreds of studies have been done to find out when and why these “leaks” occur, pointing to everything from teacher grading-bias in elementary school, to high school competition discrimination, and motherhood around the time of tenure decisions. All of these studies are important, but none of them are complete. It comes down to perpetuated social norms of “femininity” that are antithetical to societal perceptions of what a “scientist” and “engineer”should be, and this affects the way that women are treated through every step of their academic and professional careers.

My path to STEM started pretty late, around my junior year of high school, when I took my first physics class. I had an amazing female teacher, who encouraged me to follow my interests and join my high school’s robotics team., Unfortunately, as one of the two girls on the team, I was immediately thrust into a PR and philanthropy role. It was soon made clear that the appearance of girls on the team was far more important than girls’ actual participation in engineering. During public events, all of the female team members were thrust into the spotlight as if we were the most important members on the team, but as soon as we returned to the metal shop we were put away and given no real responsibility or respect. My rise to leadership on this team was met with resistance, and sometimes even hostility in the form of intimidation and gendered slurs.

As I’ve continued my STEM education, I’d like to say this experience was an unexplainable outlier, but my gender has been a constant data point that continues to skew my STEM education experience into a downward trend.  Although I’ve worked with a lot of amazing faculty and students in STEM, I can see the attitude, tone of voice, and body language that all amount to doubt in women scientists—both as students and professors. Women make up only about 14% of physics professors, meaning physics students are seriously lacking female role models. And those few female professors clearly faced doubt and in some instances disrespect, despite being top researchers in their field. This makes a powerful statement to every woman following in their footsteps about what her career is going to look like, no matter how successful she is.

Girls’ STEM camps, affirmative action programs, and consciousness raising campaigns are all great first steps, but they’re only a small part of the solution; they cannot protect women from the realities of how they will be treated in STEM fields. These unconscious biases and the way they affect our behavior are the biggest “leaks” in the pipeline. For the necessary cultural changes to be made, we must work on acknowledging each of our own personal biases, and consciously fight against them when interacting with and evaluating those around us. To solve the equation for climate change, we  can’t ignore any variables. This begins with seeing women as engineers, scientists, explorers, activists, and leaders—and treating them as such.