A Call for Media to Feature More Women in Science and Engineering

Robotic operator and aerospace engineer, Natalie Panek discusses some of the reasons why women are still under-represented in STEM careers and calls for the media to help turn the tide.

The under-representation of women in my field like Aerospace, and all other science and engineering fields is known, and has been known for many years. There is widespread speculation about the source for the low numbers including a multitude of publications, statistics etc. I do not want this to be just another one of those articles talking about the numbers.

This is an open call for action – a challenge for the media to offer more intelligent programming and feature more women in science and engineering.

What we need is Media and Mentorship, the M&M effect. Direct access to mentors, role models, and sponsors could cause a fundamental shift in encouraging young women to pursue careers in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) fields.

One of the biggest changes we can make to the portrayal of women is through the media. Paving the way for future generations of female engineers and scientists could be as simple as ensuring that the majority of youth can identify a female scientist or engineer instead of a reality TV star.

There is a direct relationship between what young women are exposed to on a daily basis, and what they believe they can be.

I am a tireless advocate for trying to get more women in tech and engineering at the forefront of the media; primarily for more TV networks to feature more female hosts on their shows discussing intelligent topics. We need the next generation of women to perceive STEM fields as part of the norm and to shift media focus towards smart, inventive women.

Unfortunately society in general does not do justice to the vast number of women in the world doing really cool work and interacting with technology. I want to have better odds of turning on the TV and seeing a scientist, engineer, or explorer, than a reality TV star. We should be using the media to celebrate science and celebrate women advancing innovative fields. We need to completely eliminate societal biases in order to inspire Gen Y women to tackle challenging world problems that require imagination and creativity.

We also need to be leveraging the fact that women are naturally mentors and nurturers. Fortunately women are very good at building communities and support systems. This will be indicative of a very powerful shift in technology over the next few decades, as those who can build networks and provide access to mentors will be very successful.

I certainly had female (and male) mentors throughout school. But it was a challenge to find and connect with women in technology.

It was oftentimes a struggle to interact with female scientists and engineers; to hear their lessons learned, their exciting experiences, or how they played with technology on a regular basis.

I learned to take advantage of the female mentors I connected with, whether that was female professors, my instructor for my pilot's license, or even a mentorship program through the Women's Executive Network (WXN), where I was mentored by Maryse Carmichael (first female Commander of the Canadian Snowbirds).  

Having positive female role models and mentors is instrumental in getting more women in STEM careers. One program I am involved with is called Cybermentor. It is essentially an online platform that facilitates an e-mail relationship between women working in STEM fields, and youth. Young women have the opportunity to ask questions and get advice, whether it is questions about University prep, career options etc.

Cybermentor offers high-quality opportunities for young women to engage with, ask questions, and interact with someone in their possible field of interest. This provides a gateway to opportunities that these young women may not have otherwise had. Access to women in STEM fields via Cybermentor, in addition to workshops, online resources, and other events, provides options for rewarding career paths, while building confidence in girls and opportunities to discover new interests.

Of course it is always easier for youth to see themselves in a role if they can personally relate to someone or visualize it. Seeing a successful woman in science or engineering is a direct contributor to giving young women confidence to pursue these careers. Visible role models provide a medium for revolutionizing how we think of women in technology. By challenging the media to feature more positive role models, we can inspire young women to enter what have traditionally been male-dominated fields, and to want to contribute to positively changing the world. 

We also definitely need to put more focus on why women involved with technology love what they do. I received a lot of positive feedback on my TEDx Talk about revolutionizing women in technology, but there was also a lot of negative feedback. Unfortunately those people missed the entire point of the talk. The sole objective was to highlight that society has a problem inspiring young women to pursue STEM fields, not that women in STEM are treated unfairly or should be given an easier time. This is about connecting the next generation of young females with women already accomplishing amazing feats in their chosen fields of interest.

So I challenge the media to take responsibility, embrace a new era of change, and move towards more intelligent programming. Aim for a much higher ratio of women on your shows, who are executing science and engineering work. The ultimate goal is the opportunity to engage a larger demographic with technology. Ultimately technology can and is going to revolutionize the world. The world would be wise to have a much more diverse population advancing what technology can accomplish.

Picture courtesy of http://www.freedigitalphotos.net

Natalie Panek (@nmpanek) is a robotic operator and aerospace engineer at MDA Space Missions, previously interning at NASA Goddard Spaceflight Center and NASA Ames Research Center. She’s driven a solar-powered car across North America, has a pilot’s license, and skydived with Korea’s first Astronaut. With degrees in Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, Natalie has co-authored papers on Microgravity Combustion and On-orbit Satellite Servicing. She is an advocate for women in STEM, encouraging women to dive head-on into challenging careers. She has spoken at TEDx and on multiple panels for women in tech on the topics of advancement, leadership, and space exploration. 

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