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Girls who want to be scientists face the gender gap in a male-dominated field

Determined to break into STEM fields, a group of girls from Peru, Mexico, Chile and the United States head to science camp.
9 Sep 2016 – 02:01 PM EDT
Abismo de género en una profesión

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Equations, coding, computer science and pediatrics were just some of the topics of interest to hundreds of high-school girls from the U.S. and Latin America who gathered in Peru recently for a two-week Women in Science “camp.”

The camp, about an hour from Lima in Chaclacayo, Peru, aimed to engage young women in STEM -- science, technology, engineering and mathematics -- and prepare them for careers in these fields.

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The Latinas Who Want to Change the World with Science

Across the world, women account for only 30% of scientific researchers, according to UNESCO. In the United States, women represent only 24% of STEM professionals, according to the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation.

Among U.S. Hispanics, the numbers are even more sobering. While there are more than 55 million Hispanics in the U.S., or about 17.4% of the total population, only 10.9% of those who graduated from STEM majors in 2014 were Hispanic, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

According to January 2016 data, 69% of all Google employees are men and 31% are women. In the United States, 3% of its workers are Hispanic and 2% are African American. Asians and whites account for 32% and 59% of employees, respectively.

We followed four girls at camp as they took part in experiments, learned coding and other skills, and bonded over female empowerment: Jasmin Flores, born to Salvadoran parents in Los Angeles, California; Aisha Julieta Cabrera Garcia, from Mexico; Camila Colque Mamani, from Chile; and Anely Zaid Janampa Martinez, from Peru.

The camp was a collaboration between the U.S. State Department, the Girl Up campaign of the United Nations Foundation, Google, Intel and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation.

This report received financial support from UN Foundation.

Jasmín Flores

Palisades Charter High School, United States

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Girls who Want to be Scientists: Jasmin

Her goal is to graduate from college, a dream shared by many in her family. It's not easy. She commutes for an hour to get to a school that offers honors classes and clubs that can help her develop her skills.

Meanwhile, her mother cleans houses for a living and her father works in a dental lab.

“My parents couldn't go to college. They emigrated from El Salvador, and that is very important to me because they work very hard for me, so that I can go to the school I go to.”

Though not sure yet what she wants to study, Jasmin, 14, likes the idea of being a pediatrician. In her free time, she works as a volunteer at various organizations, where she helps children.

“When I was in elementary school, people always told me that I wasn’t intelligent, that I would never amount to anything, I wouldn’t make it to college and stuff like that. I believed it for a while ... but eventually I woke up and said ‘I can do this.'”

To Jasmin, education is the path to personal growth. Financial problems haven't discouraged her parents. “They tell me, 'Although we don't have enough money, we will find a way to get you to college,'" she says proudly.

She dreams of graduating from college, getting a decent job, “helping those without a voice” and having a family.

“I want to give back to my parents a bit of everything they have given me because they work very hard,” she says. “They have always told me that I will achieve a lot in my life and I believe it.”

Aisha Julieta Cabrera García

Escuela Preparatoria Número Tres, Mexico

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Girls Who Want to be Scientists: Aisha

Aisha, 16, inherited her love for math from her father, who helped her when she started learning algebra at just eight years old. But when he abandoned the family, she didn't have many opportunities to continue improving her skills.

“He helped my mom a lot … Then, my mom was under a lot of pressure,” she says.

But her determination grew from that painful experience. She thought of others who went through worse experiences and told herself, “I can do it.”

“Then I said, 'And how can I solve this?' [If] my mom loses her job, I'll find a job myself. I can't go to the college I want? I go to another and then I'll try again at the one I wanted. I don't want to quit without having tried as much as possible,” she says.

Aisha wants to be an engineer or a scientist, but she also wants to help others. “I would like schooling to be available everywhere ... because I have seen appalling conditions of some schools with dirt floors, without roofs, even without desks.”

Math, which Aisha loves so much, appeals to her because she enjoys solving equations. “I guess I like solving problems, I don't like to quit halfway. I like seeing things through,” she says.

Anely Zaid Martínez Janampa

Pasco High Performance School, Peru

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Girls Who Want to be Scientists: Anely

Anely is fascinated by computer science and by the idea of women getting ahead.

“I have seen the problems in my country, especially in my region where women aren't allowed to work simply because they are women,” says the 15-year-old.

“I believe that women are fundamental in developing science and technology," she adds. "From my point of view we have new ideals, revolutionary ideals."

She says she's faced prejudice for being a girl. In her international baccalaureate school, the most popular subjects are physics and mathematics. She’s one of just nine women in the class.

“I have been told many times that I won't make it because physics is only for men, science is only for men,” she says.

But she and her classmates challenged those questions about women in science when they worked on a sensor that can capture carbon dioxide to “make something good out of something bad.”

She draws inspiration from a picture in her living room of her grandmother posing with a team of engineers. She was the only woman in the picture them.

Women could become "weapons" in society, Anely says.

Camila Colque Mamani

Liceo Octavio Palma Pérez, Chile

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Girls Who Want to be Scientists: Camila

Camp has been a special experience for Camila, 16. “I had never used a microscope before; seeing my thumb, plants, bacteria, and DNA so close was a great experience,” she said.

She is an only child and lives with her mother, who worked as a weaver to get by and then started a laundry business.

“It's exhausting ... She's a great inspiration for me. I want to help her get ahead, I don't want her to overwork herself,” Camila said.

Camila doesn't know her father, whom she has only seen in pictures. Her mother told her that he saw her as a newborn.

“I'm evangelical, I go to a church, and spiritually I didn't need my father," she said. "Thanks to my mom I never missed him.”

Camila had to convince her mother to let her come to the camp. It was hard for her, too, since she and her mother are very close.

“I was very worried about her," said Camila. "I find it very hard to leave her alone; it's a huge hurdle I need to overcome if I want to study far from home. I have to solve it but I don't know how.”

Camila thinks she would like to be a pediatrician, or a midwife, because she could combine her interests in science and children.

“I may not get to travel around the world, but I will help my mom get ahead in life. I will do it,” she says.