Ko Barrett is the Deputy Assistant Administrator for Research at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) where she supervises daily operations and administration of NOAA’s research enterprise. In 2015, Ko Barrett was one of the first women elected to serve as a vice-chair of The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
As we celebrate the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, I want to share a short story about my 11-year old self. It was the 1960s and I was a girl completely taken with science. The country was riveted by the Apollo space program and my standard TV viewing included Star Trek, the Jetsons and Lost in Space. My parents bought me a telescope and though I couldn’t see many stars from our urban apartment, I could see the craters on the moon and occasionally, four small dots that I knew to be the visible moons of Jupiter. Once, for a solar eclipse, my Dad brought home some thick colored glass from the auto body shop where he worked so we could tape it to the telescope and look directly at the Sun as it was gradually hidden by the moon. I liked to calculate things like how long it would take for light to reach the earth from the Sun. While other kids were talking about being teachers or doctors or firemen, I wanted to be an astronomer. I had no real idea what this meant and no one in my family had ever gone to college, but this was my dream.
That dream shattered one evening when a priest from our parish stopped by to check in on my Mom. I was sitting at the dining room table doing the calculations I loved. He looked over my shoulder and asked what I was doing. I showed him my notebook and … he ridiculed me. He said I was a smarty pants, showing off and shouldn’t be wasting my time on such vain pursuits. It was a crushing response from someone with so much power in my world. It left me ashamed and confused. Was I somehow bad for being interested in this?
This event hit right at that time – middle school – where research shows that girls often lose interest in math and science due to social pressures, negative stereotypes and a lack of mentors. I lost confidence in myself, tuned out of math and lost my passion for solving the mysteries of the universe. Had it not been for a Physics teacher in my junior year of High School, I may not have come back around. He was goofy and donned a fortune teller’s robe each Friday to engage us in an oral quiz. No matter how foolish we might be with our wrong answers, he was always far more foolish. That made for a safe space to build confidence and remember that science was fun. I took two years of Physics with him and rekindled my passion.
I share that story because my experience was traumatic, but not unique. Unfortunately, many girls still hit some snag and give up on math and science in adolescence. Many girls lose the confidence to persevere when they are outnumbered, seen as different, or scared of making mistakes in front of their peers. When we lose them then, it severely impacts our ability to reach any semblance of gender parity in college and post-graduation in STEAM professions.
Why does this matter? When women, ethnic minorities, and people from diverse backgrounds and expertise are not well represented in our scientific endeavors we are hampered in our ability to solve the complex problems of our day. We need different perspectives considering problems from every angle to find solutions to our grand scientific challenges. We need people to see the things we don’t see in order to compensate for our unconscious biases and gaps in knowledge This is how we discover the best explanations, the most innovative ideas, and the breakthroughs we need.
So, as we celebrate this day of women and girls in science, join me in taking a moment to seek out an adolescent girl to celebrate her academic passion, whatever it is. A better world may depend on it.
By Ko Barrett | @KoBarrettIPCC