Wisdom//

Why (Men)tors Matter: Closing the Gender Gap in STEM

As the demand for STEM talent is predicted to far surpass the supply in coming years, we must do more.

Getty Images
Getty Images

I woke up before my alarm sounded at 5am, no small feat in Vegas. The night before, I had signed up to run a 5K as part of a medical meeting that was taking place. As I lay in bed, my head filled with excuses of why I shouldn’t run the race. Chief of which was my fear of finishing last amongst a highly athletic and competitive group of doctors. 

It’s worth a little discussion of my last-minute decision to run and what the race represented to me. The architect of the meeting and race was Dr. Ziyad Hijazi, a world-renowned pediatric interventional cardiologist. Ziyad and I met in 1991, the summer before my junior year in high school. I was part of a program through Tufts Medical Center, designed to encourage underrepresented minorities into science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) careers. Ziyad recently joined Boston’s Floating Hospital for Children and served as my mentor for the summer. 

Despite the long journey from my home into downtown, I couldn’t wait to get to the hospital each day and work with Ziyad. To many, the tasks I had may have seemed mundane. To me, however, a 15 year old girl with budding aspirations, they were serious patient care responsibilities. I had graduated from medical kits and books to real patients with problems that I was helping to solve. 

What was special about Ziyad was the trust he placed in me, or at least what I perceived, despite my age or lack of experience. He fostered an environment of psychological safety when I made mistakes, always teaching and mentoring, never blaming. I entered the program a teenage girl filled with so many self-limiting beliefs. As the summer progressed, barriers tumbled down and I left the program with a strong resolve to become a heart surgeon. 

I set my sights on attending Johns Hopkins, sharing the story about my summer with Ziyad in my application essay. I was accepted through the early decision program; a truly transformative moment. With confidence and perseverance, I succeeded in achieving something I deeply desired and changed the trajectory of my life. Ultimately, I chose to pursue a career in industry pioneering new therapies for the treatment of heart diseases which is what landed me at the medical meeting in Vegas. 

Thus, when put in context of our history, fearing failure and not running the race would not represent what Ziyad had taught me so early in life. I was capable and it was merely a matter of believing in myself. I cued up at the starting line filled with excitement and nervous energy, running quickly out the gate as the race started. As I tired, I cheered others along the route, adding a pep in everyone’s stride. Needless to say, I finished the race with my fastest 5K time ever and a respectable finish overall. 

I am incredibly fortunate to have had such a tremendous mentor and advocate, proof that early exposure to the right experiences and role models works to encourage women into STEM. In fact, 4 out of 5 women studying STEM in college made the decision to do so in their high school years. Unfortunately, data between 2004 and 2014 shows a troubling decline in STEM bachelor’s degrees earned by women. Only 12 of every 100 STEM college students are female, leading to a huge gender gap in the US STEM talent pool. 

As the demand for STEM talent is predicted to far surpass the supply in coming years, we must do more. Men still hold the majority of leadership positions in STEM careers, making active participation in mentoring of women crucial to increasing female participation. Furthermore, we need to encourage and reward young women in ways that will help prevent the confidence gap that often appears at puberty and can remain throughout adulthood. More public and private funding to the types of programs in which I participated in could also make a meaningful impact. 

Most importantly, we must remember that while we can’t change a system overnight, we can be an agent of change every day. 

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