There is no question that a gender gap exists in the science and engineering fields in this country. Despite survey data that shows almost three-quarters of girls in middle school have an interest in science, math or engineering, fewer than a third of women graduating from college seek careers in those fields.
A Milwaukee-based organization is working to connect women already working in STEM fields with girls at an important stage of their education - high school. Todd and Jody Herbert founded the EgGS Initiative - the acronym stands for Engaging Girls in STEM.
The Herberts pursued the model because they could not help a close family friend who was struggling with an assignment to bring in female STEM professionals for a speaking engagement. Todd thought he had access to female STEM professionals, but quickly realized there weren't as many people in his network as he thought. "How could we go about changing that and contributing to her success? So that one-time project led to a larger effort," he says.
Herbert thinks the gender gap has been so hard to close because of the way in which we approach education: "Science has always been seen as a male dominated area, and so girls aren't often given that same chance to demonstrate their capabilities. So in part it's the way educators looks at it, but I also think it has to do with our business environments where we don't give women the same opportunities that men are afforded."
Developing relationships is a key mission of the EgGS Initiative. While they had little trouble finding professional women to participate in the program, the biggest difficulty they faces was getting high school girls involved.
"I think what we found is that for high schools, there's obviously the academic focus but the pre-professional component is not something that's on their radar screen. On the other side with the professional women we spoke to, they quickly recognized the challenges that girls face because there isn't a lot of exposure," says Todd Herbert.
In order to encourage high school girls to participate in the program - teachers, parents, and other one-on-one relationships are crucial to its success, he says. Their seminars are held outside of the classroom and in business settings in order to emphasize to participants that they need to start thinking of themselves as professionals, and engage with other women already in the field.
"Teachers [introduce] the girls, the girls [introduce] themselves to the professionals, the professionals [introduce] them to what it's like in the real world," explains Herbert.
Overall, Jody Herbert explains, EGgs Initiative seeks to help young women realize that a STEM career is attainable. "We hope that they find a way they could relate to the professionals and then take that forward as a possible path for them," she says.