Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, yesterday told members of the Allegheny County Women's Leadership Council that the challenge of tomorrow isn't getting youngsters -- particularly girls -- interested in math and science. It's keeping them interested in math and science.
Speaking to 800 women at the council's sixth annual breakfast, held in the Heinz Field East Club Lounge, Dr. Ride said that in elementary school, girls like science as much as boys do. In later years, however, the number of girls interested in science drops sharply.
"The reasons are not reasons of interest or aptitude," she said. "The reasons are in our culture and subtle stereotypes that still exist. ... Even though we're trying to get rid of them, they're still there.
"It's easy to picture. You ask a kid to draw a scientist, they'll draw a geeky-looking guy that looks like Einstein, with a lab coat and a pocket protector, with no friends, who does work at 2 in the morning in a lab with no windows and no doors.
"No 12-year-old girl aspires to that."
Dr. Ride, 56, is president and CEO of Sally Ride Science, a company she founded in 2001.
"My mission these days is to improve science education and particularly to encourage more girls and young women to go on in careers in science and math and technology or to at least explore the opportunities in those fields."
Dr. Ride stressed the importance of teaching children science in a world that is constantly making technological advancements. They need to understand science to live their daily lives and they need to know that science is a career opportunity.
"Do we have a problem with women in science and technology? Yes, we do," Dr. Ride said. "The problem is not anywhere near as bad as it was 20 or 30 years ago. But if you look around the technology work force today, you'll find that still in this country only about 11 percent of engineers are female. That's way up from less than 1 percent in the 1970s. [That's] huge progress, but [we still have] a ways to go. And only about 20 percent of the scientific work force is female.
"The philosophy we have is that we don't have to convert kids, even girls, to science. Let's just give them opportunities to explore those interests and show them that there are lots of other girls, normal kids, who share those interests and that there are lots of women who go on to careers that they love in science and engineering."
The United Way of Allegheny County Women's Leadership Council works to inspire women to make a difference in the community through economic empowerment.
Dan Majors can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1456.