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These STEM Organizations Are Uplifting the Next Generation of Women Scientists

Girls Inc. of San Diego County and All Girls STEM Society believe the future is female

By Sarah Sapeda

STEM Orgs - main

STEM Orgs – main

According to the US Census Bureau, women make up just 28 percent of the workforce in science, technology, engineering, and math fields. Though that percentage is growing, there’s a lot farther to go toward equal representation in STEM careers. San Diego nonprofits are working to close the gender gap in STEM by nurturing the talents of school-age girls, inspiring the next generation, and providing safe spaces where girls can explore their interests. These organizations give local girls the support they need to rise to the top of the talent pool.   

“We all know women are underrepresented in STEM careers. The commonly believed reason for this is that women generally lack interest in STEM as young girls, but this is not necessarily the case,” says Melissa Castillo, a STEM program specialist for Girl Scouts San Diego. “Possible reasons for the disconnect between interest and career choice are lack of consistent exposure to STEM—knowing a woman in STEM, participating in hands-on science—and adult support. This is why STEM programming is important.”

Girl Scouts in San Diego and across the nation have the opportunity to participate in a program called STEM+, which aims to instill the confidence and know-how to thrive in their educational pursuits while they earn coveted badges in areas like coding, space science, app development, and computer programming. Activities are designed to be fun, creative, and age-appropriate; for instance, instead of a conventional lesson about the binary system, younger girls get to use beads to code their initials in jewelry. 

Race and socioeconomic status also affect the odds that a girl will pursue a STEM career. According to the National Girls Collaborative Project, girls with less-educated parents and lower family incomes were less likely to take advanced science classes, and the National Science Board estimates that only 5 percent of women in STEM careers are women of color. 

Girls Inc. of San Diego County has historically operated in communities with larger immigrant populations and lower incomes. Girls Inc., a national organization founded in 1864, began its initial push into San Diego County as a leadership program for the daughters of farm workers in inland North County more than 50 years ago. Now, the local affiliate inspires girls to be strong, smart, and bold through programming that’s relevant to the times we live in. Girls learn about social justice and how to stand up for what they believe in, how to protect themselves and take charge of their own health, how to be financially independent, and what women leaders look like in the real world. 

Girls Inc. regularly asks inspiring local women who are breaking barriers in traditionally male-dominated fields like STEM to visit schools in inland North County and San Diego’s urban core. Female STEM professionals instruct hands-on experiments, and their presence helps girls connect to science by working alongside women in the field. To give a few examples, CEO Sandra Ainslie says these future “STEMinists” have extracted DNA from a strawberry, programmed tablets, and studied environmental factors that affect health outcomes, like air quality.

“We’re in an environment where we’re seeing a lot of women blazing trails, forging pathways, owning their success, and being in the seat of leadership,” Ainslie says. “We really wanted to focus on that and bring them into our program to show girls what is happening right now, and what the path looks like.”

Mentorship matters when it comes to nurturing a girl’s interest in science, and there is a cohort of teenage girls and young women in San Diego who, in addition to their own scholarly pursuits, work to inspire a younger generation: the All Girls STEM Society. It was founded in 2015 by high schoolers Veronica Tang and Eleni Fafoutis, who wanted to share their love of STEM with other girls in San Diego. Though both have moved on to attend college out of state (Tang at Harvard and Fafoutis at the University of Virginia), the organization is still going strong. All Girls STEM Society is run by current high schoolers who host workshops for girls in third through eighth grades. Past topics have included neuroscience, Python programming, robotics, and mathematical origami. 

STEM Orgs - 2

STEM Orgs – 2

“A lot of the time, young girls lack role models,” says current president Emma Hong. “Because of the under-representation of women in STEM, what we’re trying to do is encourage young girls to continue pursuing their interests. When they see the girls teaching STEM and being passionate about STEM, they’ll see that there is a place for them in the future.” 

Hong discovered the All Girls STEM Society when she was in eighth grade, after the discouraging experience of being the only girl in her school’s math club. She participated in the nonprofit’s all-girls math tournament and was impressed by the welcoming volunteers and judgment-free environment. She has continued with All Girls STEM Society since, and now pays it forward.

“When I went to the tournament, it was this transformative experience, which is why I decided to volunteer when I got to high school,” she says. 

Whatever paths girls eventually take, the lessons they’ll learn studying science, technology, engineering, and math will take them far. Creativity, problem solving, and critical thinking are skills that can apply to a myriad of situations in the STEM fields and outside them, and building confidence and self-esteem are paramount to success.  

“When women are successful, families are more successful,” Ainslie says. “They are healthier, they have better health outcomes. Our whole society is uplifted and flourishes when women do better.”


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