Jackie Gish Retired Director of Advanced Technology Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems

Girls in STEM

PostedThursday, October 12, 2017 at 9:14 AM

I was lucky that my parents never tried to limit me or tell me that "girls can't do that." I loved math and science, started college as a math major and then changed to an individual major in physical chemistry. I went on to get a PhD at Caltech, where there were no female faculty in STEM fields at that time. I recall a negative attitude from a professor, who said "I had a girl in my class who didn't work," to which I responded "I'm working my tail off in your class."

Later I took a post doc position at UCLA and then started work in the aerospace industry. I was honored to lead a high performance team, which advanced the state-of-the-art in lasers. That work led to my nomination and election to the National Academy of Engineering. I am now retired after working my entire career for one company in a variety of positions, including technical roles, project and functional management and new business.

For the last 10 years I have been volunteering as a mentor with a program called MOSTE  (Motivating Our Students Through Experience), which matches professional women (in many fields) with middle school and high school girls from underserved communities. Because of my background, I have also tutored some of these young women in math, and, sometimes, science. Most of these young women do not have anyone at home to help them with such subjects. In addition, many of them say to me such things as "I can't do math", "I'm stupid in math", etc.  I get angry when they say that and tell them that they are psyching themselves out of succeeding. So they stop saying it!  Some of them acknowledge that "this isn't as hard as I thought" and eventually they start improving. Needless to say, their improvement and positive comments serve as a major reward  for me!

One student whom I met when she started 9th grade was in the "App" Academy at her high school, so she was learning how  to program. I tutored her in math for a couple of years and sporadically in her senior year of high school, when she was taking calculus. She told me then that she now "gets it." I encouraged her to think about technical careers since she really enjoyed the App academy. Although she applied for college in political science, by the time the acceptances rolled in, she had decided to major in engineering (either computer science or electrical engineering). Last summer she, along with all incoming engineering students at Cal State LA, had to take math from 9:00 am to 3:00 pm every day for 6 or 8 weeks. At first she found the male to female ratio intimidating, but acknowledged that it was no different than the App academy and quickly made both male and female friends. And she did great in her classes. She is now nearly half-way through her first semester and she really loves it!

So, what is the take-away? Girls and women can be just as good as boys and men in STEM. However, they may need more encouragement and help with rejecting negative stereotypes that friends and family—and even non-STEM mentors—have helped to perpetuate. 

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  • Linda  Kekelis

    Posted 4 years and 3 months ago

    Jackie, thanks for sharing this personal story about your journey in engineering and your mentoring experiences. It is clear from your blog that you helped change the mindset of the girls you mentored. I loved hearing how the girls became more comfortable with challenges. Imagine if every girl had someone to challenge and support her! We could have so many more young women going into engineering and technical fields.
    • Jackie  Gish

      Posted 4 years and 3 months ago

      Linda, thank you! We certainly agree that we need more mentors for girls (and boys) everywhere!