Around 125 female students from Conway High School heard from women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) careers during a STEM Leadership for Girls Conference March 2 at the University of Central Arkansas.
More than seven different agencies including Arkansas Coding Academy, Dillard’s, Central Arkansas Water and Acxiom were in attendance for the event.
“We had good representation,” UCA STEM Institute Director Uma Garimella said.
Garimella said the annual program hosted on campus is held to increase young girl’s interest in the STEM fields, open their minds to the possibility and encourage them to achieve what they want and persist in STEM fields.
“The STEM Field is really becoming the most demanded and the most lucrative profession in the world but the number of girls, or women, representation is very low,” she said. “We’re trying to encourage the kids to go into it.”
Also included in the day were Metova developers Karen Fletcher and Chandler Gaines who led a section called “Creative Coding,” where they gave a presentation on the history of women in technology and introduced the students to coding concepts and free resources to further pursue software developments.
“Events like the [STEM event] are so important because it gives these students exposure to career paths in STEM they may not have thought much about and are underrepresented,” Gaines said.
Garimella said in elementary, young girls often express interest in becoming doctors, engineers and more; while it’s not completely clear what deters them away from the specific career path, she said it commonly happens around the middle school phase.
“By the time they go into high school, there are very few girls actually going into STEM fields,” she said.
Personally, Garimella said she believes it has something to do with the stereotype, environment and bias girls deal with growing up, including her own up bringing.
“From the beginning [people] always told me I should be more feminine, more polite, soft-spoken and that’s what I was taught and that’s how I grew,” she said.
While she said she believes that bias is mostly unintentional, simple phrases like “boys will be boys” or “boys are better at this,” or “boys are more assertive than girls,” discourage young girls from going into STEM fields.
A challenge Garimella said she has faced at her level and through the years is often times being the only woman at the decision-making table.
“What I do is prepare well and when I go [to the meetings] I try to be very clear and [to the point] and if [there is] something I disagree [with] I say [something] instead of keeping quiet, which is what I used to do before [but] now I make a point that I should not,” she said.
While it was difficult to rise above her comfort-zone, Garimella said she overcame that and while she is not rude, she is more assertive, a skill that took her some time to learn.
She said in the past couple of years, companies, organizations and institutions have started to realize there are fewer women in STEM fields.
“That is not good because what you are missing is that variety … that variety of intellectual thinking,” Garimella said. “I think we are at a point where we have a better understanding of what we can do to improve the involvement of the girls in STEM fields.”
One of those realizations, she said, is the need to show girls that they can be successful by bringing in powerful women to talk to them about their struggles — being a woman in the workplace — and how they overcame those challenges.
Garimella said she hopes contribution to the bias would be made through the rise of STEM conferences, movements like MeToo and Time’s Up and the multiple women’s marches held recently and the many female rallies will result in a positive impact for women.
One of the big themes she took away from the women leaders at the conference, she said, was that women need to support each other and treat everyone with respect.
“These were the two things they were trying to tell everyone,” Garimella said. “You don’t have to be quiet but you don’t have to be rude. Be nice to people, try to understand people and try to deal with it.”
She said the conference left everyone empowered, including herself.
“It is amazing to see how many women are successful,” Garimella said. “By going through this, it makes me rethink and reevaluate what I do. It helps me too. I am rejuvenated and refocused and I don’t worry about whether I can do it or not because I see people being successful.”
The UCA STEM Institute is holding another conference for high school girls across the state — 125 are expected — this Friday.
The event will feature keynote speaker Elizabeth McCormick, a former U.S. Army Black Hawk pilot, and representatives from nursing, physical therapy, computer coding, medicine and organizations like Arkansas Game and Fish Commission and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
For more about the event, visit uca.edu/steminstitute.