Guest Post: Closing the Gender Gap in STEM at Every Stage

Guest Post: Closing the Gender Gap in STEM at Every Stage

Abha Patil is a Research and Development Associate at JanaCare. 

I had the privilege of growing up surrounded by women working in computer science and healthcare. Many of my close friends, regardless of gender, were encouraged to pursue a variety of school subjects and forms of art, music and sports. This fortunate upbringing has allowed me to follow my passion for global health technologies, study biomedical engineering at Boston University and work in research and development at Jana Care, a medical technology company that develops point-of-care monitoring tests and digital coaching programs for screening and management of chronic disease.

Through the CAMTech Accelerator Program (CAP), Jana Care was awarded $25,000 and eight months of acceleration support which was integral in conducting user evaluations in India and America and improving the visualization of our app so that it can be used worldwide by all kinds of people. CAMTech has been important in ensuring accuracy, affordability and ease of use in many of our technologies.

Unfortunately, these kinds of opportunities are not the case for so many girls in America and around the world. For girls to become professionals in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields, they must continue learning and motivating themselves through every stage of life. We can help close the gender gap in STEM by providing ample opportunities to explore the fields at a young age, staying focused throughout college, aiding in career development and providing guidance to other girls and women interested in their field.

Start Young

Too often girls grow up pushed towards historic gender norms. We are ingrained with certain notions: girls should like pink and remember to smile at others. If girls are good at math, it is a bonus, not a necessity. These thoughts keep bubbling up until there are so many stereotypes taking up valuable disk space that it is sometimes difficult to discern our own interests and follow them. Students thrive when they are taught many different topics and given the choice to pursue that which interests them. If we continue to expose girls to STEM education and experiences, then the door to any field is open. However, girls often think that they are wrong or not good enough, even before trying to solve a problem at the board or answering a question in class. In addition to exposure, an encouraging environment is integral in allowing girls well versed in many subjects to make informed decisions about their futures.

Recently, I spoke with Jana Care’s CMO, Veronica Chew, about women in STEM, a topic which is also near and dear to her heart. She climbed the ladder from practicing industrial engineering to forming her own digital medical technology company to taking on various leadership roles in other health tech companies. It is clear to her when leaders have a strong foundation in STEM because when confronted with difficult challenges outside their comfort zones, they know what questions to ask and logically dissect the problems and follow paths to different solutions.

We can help instill these values in the future leaders of the world by engaging girls in STEM through many different avenues. Recently I volunteered with the Boston Area Girls STEM Collaborative, a group which organizes many activities to engage girls in Science, Engineering, and Technology (SET) in the city. The event consisted of high school girls from all over the Boston area who spent a full Saturday meeting with college students, exploring university and industry labs and learning about research and career paths from women in various fields. While I was demonstrating some of Jana Care’s low-cost point-of-care technology, I looked out onto a sea of excited eyes. I fielded many questions about what I do and how I got here, but my favorite conversations included girls telling me how they would improve our platform. One of the girls even told me that I was cool for having a job that used science and engineering to help people. I am excited to live in a city which understands the need to engage girls in STEM and has women who are willing to mentor. I found two more organizations that I hope to be involved with in Boston doing just this: Science Club for Girls and the Girls STEM Summit by Junior Tech.

I hope that in addition to exposing girls to countless opportunities, we can also create an ongoing program where girls can take part in real STEM experiences in which they help define problems or difficulties in their communities, use scientific methodology to formulate a plan and work with each other to put it into action. Learning on paper is necessary, but there is no substitution for hands on tinkering and troubleshooting. They will certainly be faced with lots of troubleshooting if they pursue a tech career later.

Stay Focused

What fascinates me is the disparity between the number of women working in the healthcare field, using healthcare technologies every day, and the number of women engineers, scientists and entrepreneurs who involved in the development of these same technologies. The concern is that even if women are studying STEM in college, they are not as likely to pursue a career in it after graduation. According to the Economics and Statistics Administration, in 2015, women made up only about 30% of all STEM undergraduate degree holders, and even less in engineering. At Boston University, the biomedical engineering program had about 43% female and 57% male enrollment in 2016, the smallest gap within undergraduate engineering programs. Even so, there were many times when I felt too nervous to raise my hand in case I would be laughed at in class.

These experiences helped to shape my mindset, which is that being wrong is okay, but a fear to share your ideas is not productive. To this day when I am about to stop myself from saying something, I catch myself repeating “Would my dad or brother have said this?” in my head as I decide to share. I often wonder if these experiences are echoed by men in college. When a lecture hall is mostly filled with men, it is easier to feel out of place as a woman. But a woman’s place is absolutely in the classroom. According to the National Science Foundation, in 2015, 70% of health-related occupations, but only 28% of other STEM occupations were held by women. I want even more women innovating and inventing in STEM fields so that they can support their counterparts in health-related occupations.

In planning life after college, it is essential to understand which opportunities and potential career paths lie ahead. Many of my peers are working in a different field than which they studied just because they did not know how to reach certain career paths. I would like to see a recurring event during which women showcase their experiences and how they got there. Another resource I found useful was the reading about 100 Women in STEM published by STEMConnector. It would be beneficial and fun to hear about the community around us in a more casual environment. For me, just speaking with Veronica over video chat was reassuring. She shared with me insights from navigating her own winding career and learning about her journey reminded me of how much lies ahead in mine and the impact I can make.

Pass it Along

Connecting to experienced women in the health tech field with whom I can share ideas, ask questions and learn from has been invaluable for my growth and perspective. This March, I was excited to present Jana Care’s tech at the CAMTech Innovation Platform (CIP). I happened to be alongside two female entrepreneurs showcasing their own health tech companies. Hearing their stories about getting into and growing in the startup world left me feeling so invigorated that as soon as I got on the train to go home, I was madly outlining problems and potential solutions (which just so happened to be about women’s healthcare!) that I could someday put into place. These kinds of interactions not only remind me of the magnitude of work that is already being done in the health tech field, but more importantly how much more we can grow. For the field to thrive, we need to ensure that diverse women are on the frontlines of developing these technologies, which will inevitably end up being used by majority women in the healthcare field.

Having different groups of women mentors who meet and teach frequently would be beneficial to instill excitement and confidence in STEM at any age. College-aged or recent graduates of STEM can offer younger girls a look into new discoveries and ways of thinking. These kinds of excited and dedicated women can have a lasting impact on a growing mind. Meanwhile, these same younger mentors need their own guidance and spark from women who are even further in their careers.

I am excited to see how CAMTech and other organizations can use programs, such as SheSolves, to continue to engage, expand and enrich the minds of great women to further the fields of health tech and STEM. I hope to continue finding mentorship in many brilliant women and that one day I can give back to girls growing in STEM as much as others have already given to me.  To help close this gender gap, we must take any opportunity to nurture girls’ interests in STEM, offer as much motivation and guidance to bright minds unsure of what lies ahead and promote the ideas and innovations that women bring forth so that we can continue to further the STEM and health tech fields with diverse minds.

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