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My hero, Sally Ride

Editor’s Note: This is a part of a collection of stories SDNN will publish throughout the month of March to celebrate Women’s History Month. Join us as we recognize Women’s History Month by sending in your stories too and checking SDNN every day for stories from other women in our region. Happy Women’s History Month!

Because serendipity connects Women’s History Month with the San Diego Science Festival, and both connect to my admiration and undying respect for women pioneers in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), my choice for hero of the month is astronomy’s national symbol of female achievement and local treasure, astronaut Sally Ride.

In 1983, Sally Ride blasted into space, igniting girls’ imaginations world-wide.

On that historic voyage, the space shuttle Challenger shattered more than the physical barriers of gravity and atmosphere. Women and girls were inspired by the courage and intelligence of this first female astronaut, whose humility and dedication to her profession symbolized the folly of sexism and the reality of a changing time.

“RIDE SALLY RIDE,” proclaimed the bold headline in Newsweek, a souvenir I’ve saved to this day. Silly as it sounds now, she was my idol, although I was almost 30 years old (too old for hero worship).

Feminists could raise awareness one man at a time and talk about breaking through the corporate glass ceiling to anyone who would listen, but this woman, this rock star of science, was actually, quietly doing it, and not particularly caring whose minds she changed along the way.

Sally Ride lived her dream of becoming an astronaut long before it was remotely possible for most women to consider inclusion in such an elite, testosterone-laced, all-male club. And she did it with aplomb, gaining respect from her colleagues and fellow astronauts who saw past her gender and admired her for the high quality of her work, her professionalism and devotion to her job.

Ride joined NASA in 1978 and trained for several years before being selected as a mission specialist and part of a five-member crew for Challenger’s 1983 flight. She flew again in 1984 and was preparing for her third flight when Challenger exploded in 1986.

After two missions in space and more than 343 hours of space flight, Ride retired from NASA’s space program in 1987 and became a professor of physics at the University of California, San Diego.

But she has not stopped exploring new frontiers.

Dedicated to advancing the cause of science in young people, especially girls, Ride now devotes much of her time to promoting science education in elementary and secondary schools.

She is the president and chief executive officer of Sally Ride Science, a company she founded in 2001 that creates entertaining science programs and publications for students in kindergarten through eighth grade. Ride’s particular focus is to provide support and encouragement to all girls and young women who are or might become interested in studying STEM subjects.

Why so few women?

In the years since Sally Ride very visibly demonstrated that women can excel alongside men in male-dominated fields, girls have made some progress closing the STEM gap with boys. But it’s slow going.

A report titled “Why So Few?” was just released by the American Association of University Women, an organization that promotes education and equity for girls and women. And the latest statistics are depressing.

The report addresses this question: “In an era when women are increasingly prominent in medicine, law and business, why are so few women becoming scientists and engineers?”

The report finds that girls and boys take science and math courses in approximately equal numbers all through elementary, middle and high school. “Yet fewer women than men pursue these majors” in college, according to the report’s executive summary. And by graduation, “men outnumber women in nearly every science and engineering field.” In fields like physics, engineering and computer science, “the difference is dramatic, with women earning only 20 percent of bachelor’s degrees.” Women’s representation declines even further at the graduate level and in the workplace.

One finding in particular is most disturbing: that girls’ interest and achievement in STEM subjects are shaped by their environment, and that bias, even unconscious, often limits women’s progress.

A KPBS study from three years ago found that the number of girls and boys who like math and science in fourth grade is about the same. But by eighth grade, girls are less likely than boys to think they are good at math and science. It also revealed that fewer than 33 percent of participants in computer courses and related activities are girls, while nearly 75 percent of jobs in the future will require the use of computers.

Last week, my son’s middle school held a Math Field Day competition. During one event, where teams of three students competed to see which team could correctly answer more math questions the fastest, there was one all-girl team and four all-boy teams. So already we see the effects of historically discriminatory attitudes that convince many girls that “they just aren’t good enough.”

The girls’ team came in last place. That wasn’t so bad – at least they tried. But what was disillusioning was overhearing some of the boys joking about the girls scoring so low.

I congratulated the girls for their efforts and made a big deal out of their participation. But would the accolades offered by one unknown parent be enough to counteract the impact of their defeat and subsequent humiliation at the hands of the boys? Sadly, I doubt any of these three girls will ever participate in a math competition again.

Work to do

There is still much work to be done to ensure that all academic options are open to every student, regardless of sex. Deeply ingrained stereotypes, educational tracking, cultural influences, familial traditions and unconscious bias from parents and teachers – and students themselves – continue to segregate girls from boys in academic interests and career choices.

But the barriers are falling, slowly but surely, as more and more women find success and personal fulfillment working in fields previously dominated by men.

Efforts by the San Diego Science Alliance, local scientists and engineers who volunteer in classrooms, San Diego’s numerous biotech and scientific companies, UCSD, the San Diego County Office of Education, and individual teachers, parents and researchers are all doing valuable work to make science fun and accessible to all children at the earliest ages.

This week’s San Diego Science Festival recognizes all those individuals and organizations working diligently to promote STEM careers as not only within reach but also exciting, rewarding and in great demand.

Other factors besides Sally Ride’s historic voyage have contributed to a greater focus on equalizing opportunities between the sexes for careers in science, but there is no doubt she became a strong role model for girls and continues to be an inspiration.

Without setting out to change the world, she embodies for many of us all that we hoped our daughters would one day take for granted – the ability to access and enjoy classes that girls typically were encouraged to shun, to be respected in professions traditionally reserved only for men, and to excel at their chosen careers, whatever those may be, with poise and passion.

For many of us, Sally Ride represents a historic moment in time, when girls and young women everywhere realized they had within themselves the capacity to aim for the stars and achieve their dreams, no matter how lofty.

Marsha Sutton is the education editor for the San Diego News Network.