Girls and STEM: Making it the Choice Not the Chore


When we think about Science for many of us it sends a little bit of a chill down our spine. For some of us we are reminded of the high school Chemistry class we struggled through or the Physics class we were forced to take to fulfill that one last Science requirement to graduate from college.

For me, the sciences were always subjects to be feared and avoided at all costs. Although I had a few female Science teachers, they seemed to be muddling through the class themselves. Science wasn't their passion, or at least it didn't seem to be, and they were also the Homeroom, English, Math and Reading teacher.

When I moved into college, I didn't have any female Science teachers, or even Math teachers for that matter, and it didn't seem strange to me at all. In my mind, Science was for boys who were interested in dissecting things, figuring out very difficult equations and burning stuff that smelled terrible.

Photo Courtesy of Pace University

What I didn't realize, until I became a teacher myself, a preschool and then kindergarten teacher, was that the STEM subjects, Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, were amongst my favorites and had been all along. They were my favorite subjects when I was in school too, at least up until fourth grade, when we had to go to a class called Science, read from a boring textbook and learn vocabulary words that were as foreign to me as learning Mandarin.

What I found out when I had to teach these STEM subjects to my students was that STEM wasn't scary. STEM was mixing food coloring together and watching as new colors magically appeared, reading about how NASA using robots to explore Mars, working with a huge bin of Legos and straws to build a bridge as a class, or watching a four-year-old finally understand the idea of subtraction when they were using brightly colored bears as math manipulatives.

The STEM subjects were wonderfully exciting and all around us. We just weren't letting our kids, and especially our girls in on the secret. When I started my own preschool program in 2010, I decided that one of our core missions was going to be to demystify STEM and bring these subjects into the classroom from day one. We also were going to use the actual vocabulary words, especially in the Sciences. Chemistry is mixing food coloring together, Engineering is figuring out how to build that bridge with toothpicks and Legos. How do different colors affect the temperature of an object? Physics. It was especially important when doing anything Science related that we used the same words we would use in a high school classroom in our preschool room so that when our students were told it's time for Chemistry class, or Physics or a lesson in Ecology for that matter, they knew what they were in for and they had a positive attitude toward the Sciences.

After many years of watching caterpillar's turn into butterflies, and carnations turn blue, red and purple as they drank from canisters of colored water, we are proud to say that we have graduated a lot of kids, both boys and girls, who love Science. We have had the opportunity to follow up with many of them in first, second and even third grade and they light up when you say the word experiment, Chemistry, or Physics. But that doesn't mean that we all must love Science or feel like we are budding Scientists with all the answers to excite our kids about STEM. Just helping our sons and daughters to have a few cool, fun experiences with Science is enough and it's easy to do right at home.

If you want to teach your little ones about chemistry, start with baking. Mixing, measuring, and observing how the ingredients come together is a lot of fun. Add heat and what do you get? An experiment, cookies and a delicious treat. Biology and ecology might seem like a stretch, but it's easy to bring home as well. Get a few flower pots and some seeds and observe as your indoor garden grows with your child, or purchase a small butterfly kit online and watch as caterpillars create cocoons, and bloom into beautiful butterflies. Environmental science your thing? Divide and conquer. Have your kids help you sort your recyclables. Set some boxes aside, decorate them together and talk about why we recycle and how it helps keep our earth healthy. There are so many ways to bring Science home and get your kids excited about it. By exposing our kids to opportunities at home and school, we are helping them to build a positive relationship with science that will be everlasting.

Photo Courtesy of University of San Diego

As the mother of two girls, I wanted them to have a positive outlook towards the Sciences and even consider making Science a career choice. One daughter has decided that she is most interested in a career in the Arts, which I am equally proud and happy about. The other, has chosen to pursue a career in medicine. Either way, both of my daughters enjoy Science and grew up feeling as if all the STEM subjects were fun, exciting and just as much for the boys as they were for the girls.

7min read

The Middle East And North Africa Are Brimming With Untapped Female Potential

Women of the Middle East have made significant strides in the past decade in a number of sectors, but huge gaps remain within the labor market, especially in leadership roles.

A huge number of institutions have researched and quantified trends of and obstacles to the full utilization of females in the marketplace. Gabriela Ramos, is the Chief-of-Staff to The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), an alliance of thirty-six governments seeking to improve economic growth and world trade. The OECD reports that increasing participation in the women's labor force could easily result in a $12 trillion jump in the global GDP by the year 2025.

To realize the possibilities, attention needs to be directed toward the most significantly underutilized resource: the women of MENA—the Middle East and North African countries. Educating the men of MENA on the importance of women working and holding leadership roles will improve the economies of those nations and lead to both national and global rewards, such as dissolving cultural stereotypes.

The OECD reports that increasing participation in the women's labor force could easily result in a $12 trillion jump in the global GDP by the year 2025.

In order to put this issue in perspective, the MENA region has the second highest unemployment rate in the world. According to the World Bank, more women than men go to universities, but for many in this region the journey ends with a degree. After graduating, women tend to stay at home due to social and cultural pressures. In 2017, the OECD estimated that unemployment among women is costing some $575 billion annually.

Forbes and Arabian Business have each published lists of the 100 most powerful Arab businesswomen, yet most female entrepreneurs in the Middle East run family businesses. When it comes to managerial positions, the MENA region ranks last with only 13 percent women among the total number of CEOs according to the Swiss-based International Labor Organization ( publication "Women Business Management – Gaining Momentum in the Middle East and Africa.")

The lopsided tendency that keeps women in family business—remaining tethered to the home even if they are prepared and capable of moving "into the world"—is noted in a report prepared by OECD. The survey provides factual support for the intuitive concern of cultural and political imbalance impeding the progression of women into the workplace who are otherwise fully capable. The nations of Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Libya, Jordan and Egypt all prohibit gender discrimination and legislate equal pay for men and women, but the progressive-sounding checklist of their rights fails to impact on "hiring, wages or women's labor force participation." In fact, the report continues, "Women in the six countries receive inferior wages for equal work… and in the private sector women rarely hold management positions or sit on the boards of companies."

This is more than a feminist mantra; MENA's males must learn that they, too, will benefit from accelerating the entry of women into the workforce on all levels. Some projections of value lost because women are unable to work; or conversely the amount of potential revenue are significant.

Elissa Freiha, founder of Womena, the leading empowerment platform in the Middle East, emphasizes the financial benefit of having women in high positions when communicating with men's groups. From a business perspective it has been proven through the market Index provider that companies with more women on their boards deliver 36% better equity than those lacking board diversity.

She challenges companies with the knowledge that, "From a business level, you can have a potential of 63% by incorporating the female perspective on the executive team and the boards of companies."

Freiha agrees that educating MENA's men will turn the tide. "It is difficult to argue culturally that a woman can disconnect herself from the household and community." Her own father, a United Arab Emirates native of Lebanese descent, preferred she get a job in the government, but after one month she quit and went on to create Womena. The fact that this win-lose situation was supported by an open-minded father, further propelled Freiha to start her own business.

"From a business level, you can have a potential of 63% by incorporating the female perspective on the executive team and the boards of companies." - Elissa Frei

While not all men share the open-mindedness of Freiha's dad, a striking number of MENA's women have convincingly demonstrated that the talent pool is skilled, capable and all-around impressive. One such woman is the prominent Sheikha Lubna bint Khalid bin Sultan Al-Qasimi, who is currently serving as a cabinet minister in the United Arab Emirates and previously headed a successful IT strategy company.

Al-Qasimi exemplifies the potential for MENA women in leadership, but how can one example become a cultural norm? Marcello Bonatto, who runs Re: Coded, a program that teaches young people in Turkey, Iraq and Yemen to become technology leaders, believes that multigenerational education is the key. He believes in the importance of educating the parent along with their offspring, "particularly when it comes to women." Bonatto notes the number of conflict-affected youth who have succeeded through his program—a boot camp training in technology.

The United Nations Women alongside Promundo—a Brazil-based NGO that promotes gender-equality and non-violence—sponsored a study titled, "International Men and Gender Equality Survey of the Middle East and North Africa in 2017."

This study surveyed ten thousand men and women between the ages of 18 and 59 across both rural and urban areas in Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco and the Palestinian Authority. It reports that, "Men expected to control their wives' personal freedoms from what they wear to when the couple has sex." Additionally, a mere one-tenth to one-third of men reported having recently carried out a more conventionally "female task" in their home.

Although the MENA region is steeped in historical tribal culture, the current conflict of gender roles is at a crucial turning point. Masculine power structures still play a huge role in these countries, and despite this obstacle, women are on the rise. But without the support of their nations' men this will continue to be an uphill battle. And if change won't come from the culture, maybe it can come from money. By educating MENA's men about these issues, the estimated $27 trillion that women could bring to their economies might not be a dream. Women have been empowering themselves for years, but it's time for MENA's men to empower its women.