Following national trends of making careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics more accessible to high school girls, Atlanta Jewish Academy is hosting its first Young Women in STEM and Career Fair on Sunday.
Rivka Monheit, a patent attorney and organizer of the event, said that the goal is to connect high school girls with professional women working in the field and empower them to pursue a STEM career one day.
“The more girls that feel confident, and that see women in these fields, the more likely they are to see that they can do it,” she said. “Unfortunately, a lot of girls have that one math class that didn’t go well and their takeaway is that, ‘I can’t do math.’”
Monheit explained that while there are a number of initiatives nationally aimed at increasing representation in science and technology, women still do not make up a proportional percentage of those fields.
“We have a dearth of women in STEM even despite all the changes that have been made,” she said. “Some areas of STEM, like biology and medical schools, you do see a larger population of women there, but even then, when you look at tenured professors and leadership, there’s still a disconnect.”
The fair aims to open doors through networking opportunities, mini-classes, hands-on experiments, career booths and a keynote speech from Columbia University’s Dr. Lori Zeltser. She’s an associate professor in the school’s Naomi Berrie Diabetes Center and the Department of Pathology and Cell Biology. In reflecting on her keynote, she looked toward her own field of biology.
“The problem with low representation of women in STEM is that it’s often presented as a leaky pipeline,” she said. “In biomedical fields, where I am, there are a lot of women going into it but you have a lot drop out, and so by the end, it’s very few.”
She explained that in her keynote she would be addressing some of the challenges that young women and girls can face getting into STEM fields, and why their middle and high school experiences may not be helpful to them.
“I think the features that make young women and girls succeed in middle and high school can hold you back later, … specifically a drive for perfection and a need for validation and approval from teachers, in particular,” she said. “Once you move into a field of science and technology, you need to push boundaries and explore. You need to push against what is orthodox and conventional.”
Zeltser explained that these were qualities she had – and still has – and that they are even further instilled societally and through school systems.
“It gets very heavily reinforced by our school system as it gets so competitive to apply to college,” she said. “Failing is very much a part of the culture, in any scientific endeavor. You need to push the boundaries.”
Monheit explained that while the event is hosted at AJA, it really is for high school girls throughout Jewish Atlanta, and that she has been amazed by the volunteers ready to step up and help with the event.
“The women in STEM community is a supportive community,” she said. “That’s what I’m hoping the girls will feel from this event.”
The event was funded thanks to a grant from the Jewish Women’s Fund of Atlanta.
The event also kicks off an upcoming mentoring program for girls in STEM in partnership with JumpSpark, which provides Jewish teens with interest-based programming and social opportunities.
Applications open at the event and will be available for a month, Monheit said. The goal is to match girls with mentors over the summer and then begin programming in September.
“Being exposed to positive role models and leaders who can tell you about opportunities can really keep their eyes open,” Monheit said. “Once you have access to these fields, there’s really no limit to where you can go.”
The Young Women in STEM and Career Fair takes place 1:30-4:30 p.m. Sunday at AJA upper school. The event is free and open to all Jewish eighth- to 12th-grade girls. To register, visit: tinyurl.com/AJAstem19.