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My first job after immigrating to the United States was as a mechanical/software engineer for a small engineering company. At the time, it was a company of five engineers, all male, and a female accountant and secretary - fairly standard demographics for 1989. Then, suddenly, the owner of the company decided to hire me - a 30-year-old female mechanical and computer engineer from the Former Soviet Union (FSU). 
 
Having emigrated from a different society, at first I was oblivious to the fuss that my hiring created. It felt completely natural to be an engineer. All of my girlfriends worked in STEM, and they too all graduated from special math schools as children. For us, STEM did not have a male label. We were quick to learn that we, and our outlook, were unique here in the States. Sadly, not much has changed in the last thirty-odd years. 
 
Why is there a dearth of women in STEM in the States? Is it genetic, as ousted Harvard President Lawrence Summers once indicated? Is it societal? Twenty years and thousands of students at RSM certainly point to the latter.
 
48% of students and 78% of teachers at RSM are female. 40% of participants in the 2016 International Math Contest (IMC) were girls, where RSM girls performed twice as well as non-RSM girls. The difference between RSM boys and non-RSM boys was less striking. 
 
Many of our RSM teachers are products of different cultures and societies, so that percentage might be explained culturally. That nearly half of our students are female speaks to the values of their parents, but the performance of our female students on the IMC is particularly interesting. It indicates that female performance in mathematics can be environmentally-driven. Perhaps, in the case of RSM, it's the female role model they see in their teachers, or the type of instruction they receive here (less focused on speed and more encouraging of creative and interesting approaches to problems) that makes the difference. 
 
Girls and boys do learn differently. My female students are generally less self assured and less assertive: she needs to be completely certain that her answer is correct before raising her hand. Male students tend to interrupt me more frequently to ask a question and have less of a need for a nurturing approach. Environment matters.
 
So my dear parents, if you do not want to limit your daughter's career choices and confidence at 18, find a positive math environment for her starting at the age of 6. The solution for increasing the number of women in STEM lies in strong elementary school math programs. Girls need time to develop confidence, to see that math is something they can do. Give them time, and tell them you believe in them. Then maybe when they are recruited by a small engineering company, it will be a female collective that they join. 

Tags: being good at math, girls and math, fear of math

Inessa Rifkin

Written by Inessa Rifkin

Inessa Rifkin is the Founder and CEO of RSM.

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