Give Us a Chance to Shatter STEM's Glass Ceiling | Opinion

As adolescents, we dreamed of pursuing careers in science. But until recently, neither of us were sure it was possible—because we never saw any engineers or scientists who looked like us.

We're 18-year-old young women of color. One of us is from California, and the other is from Minnesota. Growing up, the people we saw working in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) jobs were almost exclusively white men.

That all changed when we started participating in a STEM internship program for high school students. We learned that we have what it takes to pursue careers in math and science—and that there are people with backgrounds like ours who are succeeding in these fields.

We wish all girls had the chance to see people like themselves working their dream jobs. If there were more internships like the ones we have, more girls would feel capable of shattering glass ceilings.

There's a staggering gender gap in the country's STEM workforce. The U.S. Census described women as "vastly underrepresented" in STEM, accounting for nearly half of U.S. workers but just 27 percent of people working in STEM, who are paid less than men and receive fewer research grants.

Women are going to college in higher numbers than ever before. But while they make up 56 percent of university students in the United States, they hold less than one-third of bachelor's and master's degrees in STEM subjects.

We believe this is because women aren't encouraged to join STEM fields. In a society that commonly uses masculine pronouns to refer to scientists and engineers and has a glaring scarcity of women in the field, girls don't have enough role models they need.

We certainly felt that way. As we started taking higher-level science and math classes, we noticed we were some of the only girls in the room. None of the boys wanted to partner with us for projects. Our teachers and guest lecturers were predominately male. We felt like we were constantly fighting to prove we were smart enough.

For one of us—Jomi—being an immigrant didn't help. She moved from Nigeria at 5 years old. Throughout schooling, she felt looked down upon for her national origin, as though others didn't believe she was capable.

A research scientist works inside a laboratory
A research scientist works inside a laboratory. PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images

During our internships, we learned that we were indeed capable. Our program at the health care company Abbott matched students from historically underrepresented and low-income backgrounds with work opportunities in operations, quality control, manufacturing and research and development, among other STEM disciplines.

One of us—Fiona—worked alongside a team of female scientists who were passionate about their work and encouraged her to pursue a degree in biology when starting at UCLA this fall. Jomi met a female engineer for the first time—and can't wait to study engineering at Northwestern University.

Having women as mentors gave us confidence that we can change the world through STEM, just like them.

Summer experiences like ours are the exception, not the norm. That's unfortunate, not just for the many girls who don't get the chance to reach their full potential, but also for our country. The United States will need nearly 1.1 million more STEM workers by 2030.

Wouldn't it be great if many of them were women and people of color? We need scientists and engineers from all backgrounds to solve problems that affect all corners of society.

If our experience is any indication, the best way to reach underrepresented kids interested in STEM is to start early. One way that can happen is if more companies create internship programs that offer high school girls opportunities in STEM fields.

Our planet faces a huge range of challenges that people with expertise in math and science can help solve, from curing disease to addressing climate change. To tackle problems of this scale, we need to empower all of America's youth. We can only fully thrive with diverse minds leading the way.

Jomi Babatunde-Omoya is a freshman at Northwestern University studying engineering.

Fiona Harley is a freshman at UCLA studying biology and engineering.

The views expressed in this article are the writers' own.