Bridging the Gender Divide

An honoree for the Manufacturing Institute’s STEP Ahead Awards, Xometry’s own Valerie Coffman outlines actions to promote women in manufacturing and STEM

By Valerie Coffman · April 20, 2017

When I was in third grade, my teacher asked the class to draw a picture of a scientist. Most of the students drew an Einstein-like character with disheveled hair, a lab coat, and a beaker with fog spilling out of it. I turned in a picture of a woman with long straight hair, wearing a skirt, and peering through a microscope. I didn’t realize it at the time, but the scientist I had drawn looked remarkably like a future version of myself.

Science and technology professions are strongly typed along gender and racial lines. These stereotypes reach children at an early age. I was lucky to be shielded from these stereotypes since both my parents are mathematicians. My first exposure to differential equations was in the womb while my mother defended her doctoral dissertation at Carnegie Mellon.

While the proportion of women majoring in STEM fields has improved since the 1970s when I was born, it has been in an alarming decline since I graduated college in 2000. The most staggering numbers are for computer science, where the proportion of Bachelor’s degrees earned by women peaked at 37% in the early 80s.

Why is this? Experts including Jenessa Shapiro and Liza Mundy cite pervasive gender stereotypes for science and tech workers and systemic mistreatment of women in those fields.

Percentage of STEM Bachelor's degrees conferred to women in the U.S., by major (1970-2012)

Greater still though is the gender gap in the manufacturing industry. I chose to work in manufacturing because it is ripe for disruption and presents fascinating technical challenges and opportunities. Xometry is leading innovation by using computational geometry and data science to automate the marketplace for low-volume production.  I’m driven by using science to create efficiencies for our customers and manufacturing partners across the U.S.A.

As a woman at the intersection of both science and manufacturing, I recognize how important programs like the Manufacturing Institute’s STEP Ahead Awards are to promoting women’s role in STEP and bridging the gender divide.

But the Manufacturing Institute and others like them cannot work in isolation. We all have a role to play in ending the attitudes and behaviors that keep women and girls out of manufacturing and science. Below are three suggestions for how we can do this.

Stop celebrating the nerd / geek trope.

When I was applying to colleges, I received a postcard about a “Nerd Pride” festival from a prominent engineering university. I didn’t apply there. “Geek” and “nerd” are not only pejorative terms to most people, but are also tied to a white, male image. Let’s stop celebrating this trope in the entertainment industry and branding tech programs with these words.

End the “math person / non-math person" fallacy.

Everyone struggles when they first learn a new problem-solving technique. So-called “math people” don't have innate abilities, they just aren't discouraged by the initial struggle. On the flip side, believing that you might not be a “math person” gives students a reason to give up early. Teachers and parents have a critical role to play in ending this damaging concept.

Ignore the haters.

Try as we might to rid the world of stereotypes in tech, there will probably always be that high school math teacher who doesn't call on girls or the professor who tells women not to major in physics. We need to teach young women to persist despite them. Results have a way of silencing naysayers.

Valerie Coffman is Chief Science Officer at Xometry, and was integral in creating the company’s algorithms. Valerie has been recognized by the Manufacturing Institute’s STEP Ahead Awards honoring emerging female leaders in the industry.

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