Author: Linda Cureton – Technology Executive (Former NASA CIO)
I had two recent occasions to talk to girls about the job of being a woman in a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) field. The goal was to encourage young girls that they could do anything they wanted to do and that it was ok to pursue study in the STEM field. After speaking to about 1,000 girls in 5 days, I reflected on what is usually a personal learning event and was reminded of an encounter with a third-grader while I was speaking at an event I supported as the CIO of NASA.
The event was for Women’s History Month and aimed to teach school-aged children to be limitless. We rotated through a series of tables answering questions from a group of school-aged children. There was one question that I got at nearly half the tables – do you want to go into space? The first time I got the question, my answer was, “No, I’m too old”. Then a group, led by an 8-year old girl yelled at me irreverently, “What??? You can do ANYTHING you want to do!” After that, my answer was YES. There’s nothing like getting a taste of your own medicine by being yelled at by an 8-year old after you just give them a dose of inspiration.
When I was their age, I wanted to go into space. But, I didn’t see anyone who looked like me in space. By the time I graduated from college, I was convinced that an overweight, nearsighted African American urban girl could never be an astronaut. But, had I done my part, and reframed my own beliefs, perhaps, I could have been a first.
In her book It’s Not a Glass Ceiling, It’s a Sticky Floor, Rebecca Shambaugh challenges us to examine our beliefs, checking them to determine if they are limiting us in any way. She goes on to say that “…in order to reach your potential, it’s essential to acknowledge the beliefs that you hold about yourself, as well as your belief about other people and the world around you.” Shambaugh reminds readers to examine these self-beliefs periodically. This sassy 8-year-old reminded me that it was time to examine my own again.
Bessie Coleman was an American aviator who became the first African American female pilot and the first African American person to hold an international pilot’s license. She challenged herself, the belief of others, and led the way for others. In a story about her life Queen Bess: Daredevil Aviator, Doris Rich, states that “… from the moment Bessie decided to become a pilot nothing deterred her.” She “ignored all the difficulties of her sex and race, her limited schooling and present occupation.”
A Chinese proverb says that “women hold up half the sky”. It is important for us – especially as women — to inspire the next generation of all of the sky-holders — scientists, engineers, and explorers — to aim high and reach new heights for the improvement of humankind. If we as women are going to carry our weight in holding up the sky, we have to get beyond the notion of a glass ceiling and change the self-limiting behaviors to reach these heights.
In many ways, the invisible barriers we put up are far more difficult to break than those imposed on us by society or corporate America. Lt. William J. Powell, Founder of Bessie Coleman Aero Clubs said it best when he said … “Because of Bessie Coleman, we have overcome that which was worse than racial barriers. We have overcome the barriers within ourselves and dared to dream.”