Role models fight gender stereotype

VERMONT — For Lucy Edwards, earning the title of Miss Vermont 2014 meant more than wearing a tiara and sash. Edwards, a first-time contestant and a sophomore at the University of Vermont, was drawn to the Miss Vermont competition for its history of giving women a platform from which to champion the causes they were most passionate about.
“I knew that I would love the position, that being able to have a voice was what I really wanted and it’s been amazing and I almost couldn’t believe it,” the 20-year-old native of Round Hill, Va.,said last week.
And Edwards has certainly used her voice.
Miss Vermont and Vermont’s Outstanding Teen of 2014, Alexina Federhen of Bennington, recently joined forces with the Lake Champlain International to form a partnership they are calling NOW, or Nurture Our Water, Nurture Our Women. The partnership aims to promote the importance of girls’ interest and investment in science, engineering, technology and math — the so-called STEM fields — with a focus on growing pollution within Lake Champlain.
After earning her Miss Vermont title this past April, Edwards has attended the public events you might expect — you may have seen her in the Essex Memorial Day Parade or last week’s Father’s Day Fishing Derby at Lake Champlain. But she also has been working on the ground, speaking particularly with women and children about the importance of girls’ involvement in STEM fields.
Vocalizing girls’ experiences in STEM fields is significant to their eventual success, she explained, looking to her own experience competing for Miss Vermont.
“Hearing the women speak that made it, and knowing that there’s a space for me as well keeps me moving forward,” Edwards said.
Studies show that once they get into the world of work, students who studied in the STEM fields have a lower unemployment rate than those in non-STEM jobs. On average women in STEM fields earn 33 percent more than their non-STEM counterparts, according to a recent press release from the White House. And while STEM careers often provide higher salaries, women are vastly underrepresented in those workplaces. Though women make up 41 percent of PhDs in STEM fields, they comprise only 28 percent of tenure track faculty.
Part of these disparities may stem from the early development of interest in math and technology subjects among girls. Research suggests that girls and boys are equally engaged in STEM subjects until middle school, but in high school girls’ interest tends to drop.
As a neuroscience major at UVM, science has been central to Edwards’ experience as a student, and as Miss Vermont. A successful neuroscience student, Edwards is aware of the challenges facing girls interested in STEM fields.
“There’s been a stereotype that maybe girls aren’t as good at natural science and it’s usually around middle school that girls stop wanting to take the classes,” she said. “In high school I tried to take music and history but also sciences because I knew it was something that I was really interested in and that I was good at.”
Sarah Thompson, a high-school science teacher at Vergennes Union High School, has found a similar trend among her students. She has found a fairly equal balance of young women and young men studying biology and chemistry, but physics classes often had fewer girls.
Thompson guesses that part of the disparity in physics classes comes from many girls’ anxiety surrounding math.
“I don’t see it as true, but some female students have perception that they’re bad at math and think they can’t do it,” she said, pointing out that physics is math-based as compared to biology and the environmental sciences.
And while VUHS requires students to take three core science classes, which encourage girls’ interest in sciences, physics classes remain largely populated by boys.
“Unfortunately there is, in computer sciences and physics, not only an Old Boys’ Club mentality, but there’s also the geek factor,” Thompson explained. “(STEM fields) don’t seem cool because you don’t see cool girls on TV being computer geeks. And it doesn’t seem like a cool career because you might be the only girl — it might be very lonely and might not seem fun or prestigious.”
As a female physics teacher, Thompson is familiar with being in the minority in her field.
“It’s rare, when people meet me, to see me as a physics teacher because I am a girl, but it makes sense,” she said. “Girls are far more likely to feel that pressure than men are in a certain field. Most teachers are women … but more often than not you don’t see women teaching physics.”
While Edwards and the Miss Vermont organization work to promote awareness of girls’ representation in STEM fields, Lake Champlain International has been working to engage more women in addressing the perilous state of pollution in the lake.
A growing threat to the lake as a whole is the emergence of blue-green algae, said James Ehlers, executive director of the LCI. Algae blooms are not only unsightly to swimmers and fishers, they may also contribute to spread of such maladies as Lou Gehrig’s disease and Alzheimer’s. These blooms are liable at any moment to release neurotoxins into the surrounding water and air, affecting not only people in or near the water, but also the more than 200,000 people that source their drinking water from Lake Champlain. Many of the lake’s fish have unhealthy levels of mercury, and the Burlington basin is caffeinated — meaning that the caffeine that passes through people’s bodies ends up in the water, with largely unstudied effects upon the lake’s ecosystems.
Young children and developing fetuses are most sensitive to caffeine and mercury intake, and as such are more biologically vulnerable to the pollution’s largely unstudied effects.
Ehlers recognized that galvanizing citizen awareness of the pollution’s effects was the best way to encourage activism. More specifically, he noted, women were largely underrepresented in the various boards and committees he had been part of throughout his career.
“It’s my personal observation from sitting on many committees, that if there were more women involved in water policy, we would have better resolutions for some of these issues,” he said. “And as for STEM — you can’t advance good environmental policy without it being directly tied to hard science.”
In an effort to counter this underrepresentation of women, Ehlers approached the Miss Vermont organization with the idea to form a partnership that would spread awareness of the two related issues of the health of lake and the underrepresentation of women in hard science fields.
“The Miss Vermont organization was extremely receptive to that because most of the people in their organization had really no idea of what was going on and what was at stake with pollution and sewage control,” he said.
Ehlers went on to mentor two young women who competed for the Miss Vermont title. Though neither won, the platforms they developed with Ehlers — water quality and environmental conservation — continue to promote awareness and activism.
“That’s not lost, as one of the women is now in law school and is now speaking directly to other women about importance of (adherence to the Clean Water Act).” Ehlers said. Vermont is not doing a particularly good job maintaining its clean water standards, he added.
Partnering with Miss Vermont has also helped keep spirits high.
“We don’t want to scare people, so having Lucy and other women having these conversations at their schools with their families and friend groups, it elevates consciousness, elevates awareness,” Ehlers said.
This past weekend Miss Vermont and Miss Vermont Teen volunteered at the Lake Champlain International’s 33rd annual Father’s Day Fishing Derby, with prizes going to the biggest fish.
Edwards and Federhen helped weigh the fish, but also made time to talk to their fellow fishers about the importance of working toward a drinkable, fishable and swimmable Lake Champlain.
“We’re teaching them how to fish but also the importance of fishing in clean water … so when you have young girls fishing with us, they’re starting to understand how important Lake Champlain is to the quality of life in Vermont,” Edwards said. 
VERGENNES UNION HIGH School teacher Sarah Thompson is sypathetic to the research that demonstrates the underrepresentation of women in the sciences. Independent photo/Trent Campbell

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