I just finished moderating a SXSW panel on how start-ups can apply their tech “for good” when I received a text from my colleague asking me if I could be a last-minute panelist replacement. The panel? “Science, Spice and Everything Nice: Girls in STEM.” I immediately panicked. Yes, I have been working in tech for over 20 years. Yes, I have a 9-year-old daughter. But I never saw myself as a “woman in STEM.” When my daughter asks me questions like, “What’s asbestos?” after hearing it on the news, I just stare blankly and then say, “Let’s Google it!” I would be joining a panel with one of the top AI researchers IN THE WORLD and a young YouTube star with a computer science and electrical engineering background. I reluctantly said yes.
As I prepared for the panel, I began to reflect on why I was avoiding identifying with STEM and realized it’s the math and science association. I grew up believing I was bad at math and science and great at English and history. This was reinforced by gendered stereotypes my parents unconsciously modeled as well as the culture at large. I learned as early as seventh grade that being smart was not cool and being noticed and liked by boys was everything. While my confidence and grades dropped in middle school, I recovered later in high school and went to college and graduate school for journalism.
I asked myself how is journalism or even digital content really STEM? Then I remembered that in one of my first jobs after college, I launched the first website – complete with rainbow bar – for a non-profit magazine. I wrote and received grants to train inner-city girls in Boston on building websites in 1998. I was one of a handful of students who chose “new media” as a concentration at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism the first year it was offered. I designed and coded a magazine website (in addition to writing a business plan) as my final project. I later ended up managing launches for websites at Oxygen and Current TV, relaunching a youth mental health website including launching moderated forums, and I continue to oversee the development of new digital products for the Ad Council.
After that reflection, I was ready for the panel and ready to embrace my “STEM-yness.” I also want to be more conscious of what I am modeling for my daughter and more actively encourage her when she says she enjoys science and doing experiments. It’s so easy for us as parents to project our own insecurities and self-image onto our kids. I love that the Ad Council has the She Can STEM campaign – and after this panel, I feel Mom Can STEM, too!