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Red Dwarfs, STEM, and Women in Science

Astronomers recently reported the discovery of two, possibly three, planets orbiting a red dwarf star. The star, named GJ 887, is relatively nearby, “only” about 11 light-years away. While the discovery is quite interesting, so is the fact that the lead author is a female, Dr. Sandra Jeffers, who is an astrophysicist at Germany’s University of Göttingen. In addition, the fourth author listed is Dr. Carole Haswell, a British astrophysicist at the Open University in Milton Keynes, UK.

While much of the world has progressed slowly in advancing careers for girls in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), many women have forged ahead despite having little institutional support, working hard to master these subjects. Women can be found in leadership roles in various STEM fields, including astronomy and astrophysics, but there is still much room for growth.

The AAUW (American Association of University Women), for example, reports that women make up only 28% of the STEM workforce even though more than 60% of college graduates are female. Further, according to the AAUW, research shows that 9 of the 10 highest-paying college majors, all of which are in STEM fields, are dominated by men.

Girls, just like boys, need role models to help them envision their careers. Despite the huge inequities that still exist, the growing ranks of women in STEM should be inspirational for many young girls considering careers in related fields. Progress in the real world is not enough, however, as kids are very much influenced by the books they read and the television shows and movies they watch while growing up.

Science fiction often portrays idealistic worlds, yet, even in the land of make believe, children's sci-fi included, few women have had leadership roles. In fact, classic television shows such as Star Trek usually featured strong male leads. Until Captain Kathryn Janeway appeared in Star Trek: Voyager in 1995, female leaders appeared only in selected episodes. Captain Janeway was a much more realistic character than so many of the superheroes depicted in blockbuster movies over the past few decades. While it is fun to see superheroes as role models, kids have much to benefit from seeing characters who are more like themselves succeed in challenging roles.

The best young adult fiction books need to take this into account, and provide young girls (and boys alike) with the opportunity to see leaders from a variety of backgrounds.