Meredith Walker: Breaking Down Barriers for Girls in STEM

Meredith Walker, cofounder and executive director of Amy Poehler's Smart Girls 

It's time girls finally got the support they deserve, in STEM education and the world, according to Meredith Walker, cofounder and executive director of Amy Poehler's Smart Girls. Walker, who has served as a producer for Nick News, head of talent at Saturday Night Live and journalism envoy for the State Department Bureau of Culture and Education's mission to the Al Za'atari and Emirates refugee camps, will be giving a keynote address at the CUE 2018 National Conference tomorrow, March 15, at 9 a.m. Walker spoke with THE Journal about the power of encouraging girls to be themselves, not being afraid of failure and the #MeToo movement.

THE Journal: How would you characterize the state of gender equity in STEM education right now? What do you think needs to happen to improve it? 

Meredith Walker: Women and girls continue to be underrepresented in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Too many young women are discouraged early from seeking a profession in these fields. Obstacles are put up — misogynistic, socio-economic or cultural obstacles. There are other factors, too. They may not know enough about the subjects involved. Maybe no one they know works in these areas. Often, girls aren't aware of the myriad ways that physics, engineering or technology shows up in our daily lives and makes things better. 

We can all play a part in breaking down barriers by being role models and mentors. Girls need access to people they might emulate and see themselves becoming. "Mentoring" can sound very serious — but it can be as casual and simple as hanging out with, befriending, listening, letting her be her goofy self in front of you — that is mentoring. Encouraging young women does not require that you be a STEM expert. To mentor is to help create the environment for them to discover things for themselves.

Some will then find their way and their voice in STEM vocations. Others may find something else that is equally needed. The more they see people who don't let society define or limit them, the better the chances that they will discover an innate calling to decide for themselves who they want to be.

THE Journal: Do you think gender equity in STEM has improved since we began addressing it? If not, what are we doing wrong?

Walker: Building a robust future for STEM relies on engaging diverse groups of young people in STEM fields today. Where we can improve is with intersectionality. Students who live at the intersection of race, gender and ethnicity are disproportionately absent from STEM, yet they make up the fastest growing college-aged population in the United States. 

THE Journal: Repeated, systematic and recorded failure is in a lot of ways at the heart of the scientific method and I keep thinking that your Fueled By Failure campaign seems so suited for STEM education. Can you talk a little about how those intersect?

Walker: Girls need reminders that ability can always be improved with effort and that a low grade is a correctable issue. We all do better when we are bolstered to stick out the tough moments of a challenge and pursue what we love to do. We hope the girls in attendance at the Fueled By Failure summit are motivated to be bold, take risks and not let the fear of failure stop them. We, the panelists, know what it is like to fail. It has happened to all of us. Yes, failure is a setback and a bummer. Through experience, we know it is not a "bad" thing to have happen and we conveyed that by telling our stories. My co-panelist, Dr. Knatokie Ford (former senior policy advisor in the Obama White House Office of Science and Technology Policy) talked about learning how to separate failing vs. being a failure. She said, "Training to be a scientist taught me how to fail … repeatedly — but keep going. This helped me build up my ability to persevere and I learned how to troubleshoot problems. I owe so much of my success to the fact that I am not a person who gives up easily, especially for something I'm really passionate about. The fear of failure often prevents people from even trying. It's always better to attempt and fail opposed to never try and always wonder "what if."

THE Journal: When I was a kid about the age that Smart Girls seems to be talking to, I don't know that I was real sure who I was or even exactly what was supposed to define who someone was. Could you talk a little about how the Smart Girls motto works for people at an age where identity is, if not malleable, still a little mysterious?

Walker: Adolescence is when girls experience social pressure to put aside their authenticity. They face enormous cultural pressure to split into false selves. Be true to yourself and risk abandonment by your peers. Reject your true self and fit in, be socially acceptable. At Smart Girls, our hope is to lead them into the direction of being themselves authentically and honestly. We don't ask girls what they want to be when they grow up; we ask them what problems do they want to help solve and what kind of person do they want to become? By encouraging their sense of identity, they become open to possibilities and feel safer exploring what they might think of as unconventional paths. Helping young women learn how to seek the truth and seek perspectives other than their own is an important part of what we do. It is valuable to have an acquaintance with facts and to question assumptions. We put a lot of emphasis on encouraging curiosity. Be curious about yourself. Be curious about what breaks your heart. Be curious about ways of living other than your own.

THE Journal: In a world that seems to place more value on leadership skills in men and men in leadership positions, how do you get the message through that the best way to change the world is by being yourself?

Walker: Gender equality is critical because it is about being valued as a human being. It is about the dignity of every person. If we are not of equal dignity and value in one place, then we may also be devalued and dismissed in others, as well. When doors are closed based on "the way we have always done things" we lose the gifts and talents each one of us can bring to any vocation or project. If we are taught and considered as equal value then the system can change. 

THE Journal: From #MeToo to a president who dismisses talk of sexual assault as "locker room" talk and complains about welcoming people from particular countries, there's a lot swirling around our culture right now that may send young people the idea that who they are is not valued. Is that kind of stuff affecting the way you all approach your work at Smart Girls? How is it changing the conversations you're having internally, or those you see in the community you've created?

Walker: We are having a huge wake up call right now. When misogyny, ethical breaches and daily lies (not alternative facts, lies) come from a presidential administration, girls are susceptible to feeling undervalued. When people in power refer to journalism and the hard work of scientists as "FAKE NEWS," girls are susceptible to taking on beliefs that are not based on facts. More than ever, girls need examples and reminders that they are valued. They are not to be grabbed by any part of their body. They are not to be seen as "other" because of their place of birth. They should not live in fear because of how they identify or who they love.

We need to help them understand that it is their right to forge a meaningful life as they define it. Many of us are where we are because we could aspire to an education and to make our own choices. Because of the shoulders we stand on, we were encouraged to be able to dream big. We cannot ignore the enormous responsibility that comes from having had these opportunities. The responsibility to make sure that young people with lesser opportunities also have a chance to dream big. We have a responsibility to spend time with them, to listen to them, and to advocate for them. If you are in a position of privilege and power and have a voice that can be heard, use that voice to make a difference. Use your position to encourage, support, and help bring up girls who are concerned about others and the common good, and who will work to create a more just world.

CUE 2018 will be held March 14-17 in Palm Springs, CA. To hear more from Meredith Walker, attend her Keynote address tomorrow, March 15, at 9 a.m.

About the Author

Joshua Bolkan is contributing editor for Campus Technology, THE Journal and STEAM Universe. He can be reached at [email protected].