Imagine a girl.
Right now she’s sitting in her first-grade classroom, her coat is hung in the colorful cubbies that line the wall, an alphabet rug lies in the back corner near the windows, and the scent of crayons lingers in the air. At recess, she takes turns on the swings with her friends, soaring as high as she can, pretending she’s on a rocket ship to the moon.
However, this young girl, who is still honing her reading ability and learning how to dress herself, already believes that she is not as smart as her male classmates.
A study published this past January in Science explored the emergence of harmful stereotypes surrounding women in terms of their intellectual ability—namely, that males are the smarter gender. The study found that these negative beliefs began at a very early age, as girls and boys a young as 6 years old were already less likely to associate women with brilliance.
According to the authors, “Many children assimilate the idea that brilliance is a male quality at a young age. This stereotype begins to shape children’s interests as soon as it is acquired and is thus likely to narrow the range of careers they will one day contemplate.”
Meaning that our first-grade girl, who spends her days dreaming about flying to the moon, is less likely to consider a profession that is typically associated with high-level intellect, like a scientist, engineer, or psychologist.
Its studies like these that make me realize that I was one of the lucky ones.
I chose to study mechanical engineering simply because I was good at math and science. When I attended my first college class, I was taken aback to find that I was one of just three girls in the program.
“Where was everyone else?” I thought. “How could girls not want to control robotic arms or 3-D print model cars?”
After years of hearing stories from other women, I began to recognize a powerful force in my childhood that I had taken for granted—the smart, strong women who taught me through their example how to be confident and trust my own abilities.
When I look back at my K-12 years, what stands out the most are these women. From my librarian mother who fought tooth and nail to convince our financially conservative town to replace our dilapidated library, to my best friend’s mom, a neonatal nurse who brought us to volunteer at the hospital when we wanted to become doctors.
These women gave me the tools I needed to succeed in a male dominated field. And, as Lori McKenna said, “When you get where you’re going, don’t forget turn back around and help the next one in line.”
Ashleen Knutsen is a science writer and editor in Los Angeles. After a decade of experience in engineering and research, she decided to pursue a career in science communications to not only spark women and girls’ interest in STEM, but to let them know that they too can change the world.