Women are encouraged like never before to enter the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), but is the message balanced?
A reader comment to my post on What I Missed In College got me to thinking about the push to encourage girls to explore and enter STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) fields. This hit me even harder as I recently learned a five-year-old girl that I dearly love is headed to a STEM magnet school for kindergarten next year.
Don’t get me wrong. I LOVE the STEM fields! LOVE THEM! I have studied them with excitement and vigor since at least 1991 and spent a combined ten years working as an engineer and teaching operations management (using math and problem solving in business applications). I even found I loved applied statistics so much that I left my well-paying job and amazing friends to move to the desert to study for a Ph.D.! So, why do I feel hesitation in embracing these programs for women?
I feel the message may be unbalanced.
That little five-year-old girl has been described most to me as a “little mother.” She plays well with my oldest girl, but she adores and nurtures my youngest. I think she’ll be beyond excited to hold my newest baby sometime this summer. I can’t help but wonder if, in the midst of building projects with moving parts, getting excited about math, and performing hands-on experiments, she’ll also learn to ignore that part of her heart that loves to care for little children. Will she, in a male-dominated field, lose her quiet, tender heart in an effort to achieve “success?”
Perhaps it’s my own story that gives me reservations for these girls. There is no doubt in my mind that God has given me my interest in and aptitude for science, engineering, and statistics. I cannot imagine pursuing a major other than Chemical Engineering as an undergrad even now, knowing I’d choose to switch to industrial engineering as a major in grad school, teach in a business college, and then stay home with my children. I fully enjoyed, as a woman, being in the minority of the development engineering department I worked in. I was able to support myself in the years before I was married.
During those years, I still had my focus that I had insisted on in college – that I wanted a job, not a career. And I dreamed of being a stay-at-home mom, like my mom was, more than anything else. Then, I went back to school full-time for my Ph.D., a path that I could not see ever going together with a family. A year later, I married.
I’d love to say that marriage kept my aspirations grounded. I now got to care for my husband, cooking meals, trying to keep house, and all of the domestic duties that I had mostly shoved aside for 29 years to make time for other pursuits. Still, with being in a focused academic environment, I lost my vision. I got distracted as I learned what I “should” be doing to be “successful” in the field of academia. I learned what it took to be a tenure-track professor, and I learned how to do those things well. Instead of just going through my classes and requirements, I sought out additional opportunities to gain experience in teaching, research, and service. I started writing small grant proposals, presented my research at conferences, traveled to research meetings, gave several lectures to undergraduate students, and helped plan a research symposium on my campus. I won awards for presentations. I received the grant money. I worked an intense internship and won the respect of my colleagues. Before I graduated, I secured a teaching job at my alma mater, a dream come true for me.
Again, with “only” teaching required in this new position, I strove to keep the research and service parts of my vita full. These efforts took away time and focus from my husband while providing additional stress as the teaching responsibilities were already more than I would consider “full-time” work.
By the time we discovered we were expecting our first child, I had been sucked in, and felt I couldn’t leave. (Now, part of that was the calling to complete my dissertation work so I’d have my Ph.D., and I needed to stay with the university until that was complete. That delay was my fault and a topic for another day.) I was used to the income, the affirmation (Really? Do I remember the days I’d read my TEVALs and cry?), the classroom, my own office on campus, and more. I stayed a semester longer than I had to so I could try to teach a new course, an elective. Looking back, it was probably an excuse. I justified it many ways, and much of that last semester, I frantically searched for ways I could still remain engaged in the workforce or field part-time to keep my “foot in the door.” I felt I needed an outlet for my well-developed skills.
And, then I came home to be that stay-at-home mom I had always dreamed of being.
In all my days of academic training, I don’t remember hearing anyone talk of how fulfilling that would be, save my mentor from my teaching internship during my doctoral program. (I praise God for Linda! I chose her for this reason. I was trying to look for a family-friendly path.)
I can’t help but wonder, if I got distracted from what was really important – and what I really wanted – in a period of 5 years of academic immersion at ages 29-34, what will it be like for girls who are encouraged to enter STEM fields from much earlier ages? Will their teachers also tell them how wonderful it will be to stay home and raise a family, should they be so blessed?
In my eighteen months at home, I haven’t missed being in the workforce. I haven’t felt isolated. I haven’t felt “unfulfilled” or unappreciated. I have been full of the joy I hadn’t felt since before I started my Ph.D. studies! I have treasured the moments with my young children. I have savored the opportunities to pursue interests like cooking and writing that I didn’t have time for while working. I have basked in the peace that comes from not having piles of papers to grade or the stress of hurrying between work and home, dropping a child off at day care, picking her up, and trying to fix a quick supper. I have delighted in the pride my husband feels as I stay home to make our family a priority. I’ve even enjoyed being on a smaller budget, being able to trust God in new ways again and seeing His faithfulness and provision. I can’t imagine anything better than being right where I’m at, and I still get to engage in those STEM fields I love every day (see Part 2)!
So, for the girls and women out there with a passion for math or an excitement for science, I’m cheering for you, sisters! But I’m also asking you to search your hearts and seek the Lord for what He has for you each season of your life.