A science student performs an experiment

Presented by wellesley's pre-college summer programs 

As a female teen, have you ever been discouraged from pursuing a degree in a STEM field?  

In an era with more data and technology at our fingertips, it’s no secret that there’s a deficit of women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math). Research suggests that the gender gap in STEM continues: “While women constitute almost 50% of the labor market, there are only 28% of women in STEM fields as opposed to 72% of men.”
So the question remains - how do we give young women the confidence to get more involved in the field and to push through gender barriers? 

In hopes of finding an answer to this important query, marketing executive and entrepreneur Melissa Stone sat down with Wellesley math professor Ismar Volic to get his perspective.

Can you start by telling us a bit about yourself?

I’ve been at Wellesley for 13 years, teaching various math courses and doing research. I have also been engaged in a number of initiatives that advocate for women in STEM.

Why is STEM important?

To me, STEM is less about being able to calculate, program a computer, or perform a science experiment -- it’s more about becoming quantitatively literate. I’m a huge supporter of empowering everyone—especially women—to tackle various situations in life in a quantitative way. 

What does it mean to be ‘quantitatively literate’?

It means understanding the numbers, or the data that’s thrown at you. It means knowing where that information comes from, how it’s used, and how to seek clarification any time you’re confused. 

What is your advice for young women thinking about entering the field or at least trying a STEM course in high school?

Above all, don’t be intimidated. STEM involves learning how to break down a problem, analyze it, and solve it in a systematic way. This is not really about calculation -- it’s about critical thinking.

Why do you think there are fewer women in STEM, and what should we do about it? 

There are various leaks in the STEM education pipeline where we lose lots of capable, smart women. It is well-documented that female students have the same level of academic preparedness and similar career goals as males, yet they are 1.5 times more likely than men to leave their STEM studies after taking Calculus I. We have to make sure these retention rates are better by providing a learning environment that is more supportive for women. In fact, if women persisted in STEM at the same rate as men starting in Calculus I, the number of women entering the STEM workforce would increase by 75%. Plus, studies show that $28 trillion could be added to the global GDP by 2025 if women played an identical role in labor markets to that of men!

That's huge. And this is the perfect segue in which to ask you what pre-college courses you are teaching at Wellesley this summer.

I’m teaching two courses. The first is a 2-week course through the Pre-College Summer Focus program, “The House (and Senate) Always Wins: Mathematics in Voting and Politics.” The course looks at questions such as “Why do we vote the way we do?”, “Does the Electoral College make sense?”, and “How do I tell whether this political statistic is true?” Math will give us the answers to those questions, and the results will often be quite surprising!

The second course is “Cryptography: The Mathematics of Secret Writing,” where we will study what encryption is and how it is used. The course looks at questions such as “How do we communicate securely from our phones?” and “What makes an internet transaction safe?” We’ll also delve into how cryptography and politics intersect in issues of privacy.

What types of jobs can you pursue with a mathematics major?

With a major in Mathematics, you can be a data analyst, an engineer, a programmer, and so much more. But the cool thing is that if you major in a STEM field, you’re also majoring in problem solving on a broader level -- which any future employer will value. (For those still in the application process, college admissions officers also like to see this.)

What is your advice to teenage girls on how to be their "best selves" and to push through the stereotypes?

Ask questions! Always drill down and speak up. Do not take things for granted, and you should always ask for explanations. You’d be surprised at how much better equipped to handle college (and life!) you’ll become if you do.

This article is sponsored by Wellesley's Pre-College Summer Programs. To learn more about these, visit summer.wellesley.edu.