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Chelsea Clinton Calls on Schools to Support Girls in Math and Science

Chelsea Clinton leads panel on girls in STEM fields

Like it or not, most of us grew up with the belief that when it comes to math and science, it's just not a girl's thing. No wonder then that we gravitated towards teaching, nursing, and communications jobs, while the boys grew up to be engineers, scientists or carve out other math-centric careers. But was this because of our own natural inclinations, or because of some culturally nurtured myth that women just can't hack it in the lab?

Chelsea Clinton believes it's the latter. And she's calling upon schools across the nation to step it up, and support our girls when it comes to strengthening those science, technology, engineering and math skills (otherwise known as STEM).

The famous First Daughter led an all-female panel on Monday called "From STEM to Success: A No-Ceilings Conversation," which was moderated by "Mythbusters" techie Kari Byron, and included women such as Debbie Sterling, creator of GoldieBlox and Danielle Feinberg, director of photography and lighting at Pixar. There, speakers shared their own struggles in their chosen professions, and discussed how to encourage girls from an early age that they too can build cities, solve complex math equations or become master coders.

As the panelists pointed out, the gender gap in many of these fields is only getting worse. For example, in 1984, 37% of computer science degrees went to women, TIME reports. You'd think that by now — 30 years later and thoroughly immersed in a digital age — we'd see even greater numbers, but you'd be wrong. Just 12% of computer-science degrees now belong to women.

And if you think the decline in those degrees is simply because women are just not all that interested, the stats say otherwise. A poll of elementary schoolers found that 74% of girls said they were interested in math and science classes. But when you look at the demographics of STEM workers, only about 26% are women.

So where are we dropping off? Some say it has a lot to do with the way we fail to encourage our girls in middle school and high school, with teachers calling on them less in math and science classes.

A female student at the Monday discussion corroborated this fact, when she stood up and shared. "In my math and science classes, the teachers usually always picked boys to answer questions, which really bugged me because I knew the answers," the student said.

That was not news to Clinton. As she later told TIME, "So many girls in high and college are in computer science or STEM more broadly continue to be treated very different than their boy or young men colleagues. Their successes aren't celebrated at the same level, that they're often criticized for what they're wearing instead of their code being engaged with seriously."

Computer science classes are also not a focus in American high schools. In fact, 20 out of 50 states don't even count computer science courses towards graduation, and only 6,000 schools (out of 30,000) offer Advanced Placement computer courses, making the incentives pretty low in this arena.

Another factor nobody really talks about? Girls in the science lab are just not considered cool. Many of the female students at the event agreed that social pressures tend to stand in the way of them fostering their own interests in these areas, or from penetrating the "boys' club" that exists in many of these fields.

"There's a lot of boys in our school who, if they see a girl doing science stuff, judge you and call you a nerd and stuff," one girl said. "It's totally fine for the boys, but people judge you for being a girl who likes science."

During the panel, Feinberg backed up this sentiment with an anecdote of her own from her high school and college days. "I would be in the science lab programming late at night and the guys would all get together and they would figure out all the secrets to the assignments," she said. "They wouldn't share, and if I went over to ask a simple question, they would ignore me."

While revamping education on a national level will take some time, the Clinton Foundation has partnered with Google to make some changes in the meantime. Their joint project Made With Code, recently pledged $50 million to a program encouraging girls who have shown interest in STEM-related fields. By offering them female mentors to work with, the project aims to show girls that whether it's becoming a chemist or an engineer, these career paths are well within their reach.

"It's so important that girls and young women have peer support — even if enabled by social media — to recognize that all those criticisms aren't about them, they're about the critics," Clinton told TIME. "They're about the young man who feels threatened by the success of a young woman in his classroom."

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