Finding a Foothold As a Woman in Stem

Hayley Harman, a rising senior and triple-major with minors in leadership studies and communication studies at West Virginia University, reflects on the academic track to a career in STEM.

Was there a singular moment or person who opened your mind to the possibilities of a career in STEM?

Hayley Harman: I have always thought if you have the capacity to help people, you have the responsibility to help people. I had been thinking about what I wanted to focus on in medical school, but it wasn’t really solidified until I went to Mozambique—we were working with HIV/AIDS patients; it pushed me toward wanting to become an OBGYN.

Do you have a specific career in mind right now?

While I was in Mozambique, I had the opportunity to intern with a non-governmental organization called Pathfinder International. They focus on women’s health in developing nations. Through that experience I also leaned toward getting a master’s in public health. That experience taught me that you can create real change in people’s health outcomes by engaging in the community.

Has there been a teacher or mentor in the past that made an impact on your educational pursuits?

West Virginia University has a great volunteer program. I was able to volunteer at Ruby Memorial Hospital in Morgantown, where I met a lot of really awesome people who share my goals and have driven me towards medicine. These people are making such a huge impact. I know I want to do what they’re doing.

What advice would you give to curious kids already interested in science, technology, engineering or math?

Find something you’re interested in and dive in. Don’t wait to have those deeper, more meaningful experiences. The sooner you do, the sooner you can develop your goals around it or you can decide this isn’t what you wanted at all. Get hands-on sooner—that’s something I wish I’d known.

The U.S. Department of Commerce, Economics and Statistics Administration reported that women are 50 percent of the workforce, but only 24 percent of the STEM workforce. Moreover, 50 percent of women in STEM drop out in the first 10 years.

A need for teachers

This issue of not just recruitment; retention is a priority for all STEM stakeholders: corporations, nonprofits, higher education institutions and the government. And mentors are a key component of bridging this gap.

When STEM mentoring happens from K-J (kindergarten—jobs) everyone benefits. At a young age, mentors open girls’ eyes to the possibilities of what a STEM career can be, the types of coursework that is required for a STEM career and how STEM can change the world. Mentors encourage women to persist in spite of challenges that may arise in school or in the workplace while providing valuable career advice.

STEM mentors inspire and empower girls and women to dream big and ultimately to become mentors themselves. How do I know? I was one of those girls. I hated math, until the third grade. It was then that a teacher taught me the tricks associated with multiplication. Right before my elementary school’s citywide math competition, the mother of the reigning champion told me that I could not win, because “I was a girl and I was black.” This negativity did not deter me. I won that contest.

Retaining high-demand talent

Fast forward many years later where I have earned three STEM degrees, one of which is a Ph.D. in cellular and molecular medicine. Critical factors in my persistence were STEM mentors and parents who emphasized the importance of a good education. Not every child is as lucky as I was to receive affirmations about STEM at home, at school and through hands-on experiences. Where there is a lack of STEM reinforcement, mentors become even more vital.

STEM mentors are important from the educational process all the way through, including careers. They change lives while also having a positive impact on companies. Employees who were mentees were promoted five-times more than non-mentees. Furthermore, with the talent pool scarce and the demand for STEM talent at an all-time high, companies are finding that employees who participated in a mentoring program had a retention rate 20 percent higher than those who did not mentor. With STEM mentoring everyone wins. Let’s mobilize and inspire not just the next generation, but also the current generation.