Francoise Bonnell, director, U.S. Army Women's Museum, speaks to those gathered for an event that focused on the relatively few women in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields.

FORT LEE, Va. (April 4, 2013) -- The shortage of women in the career fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics -- or STEM for short -- was the focus of a special gathering here Friday in front of the U.S. Army Women's Museum.

Drawing a small but appreciative crowd, the National Women's History Month observance was co-hosted by the 23rd Quartermaster Brigade, the museum and the Fort Lee Equal Opportunity Office. It featured two guest speakers and entertainment by a jazz ensemble from the 392nd Army Band. An opening performance of "Sweet Home Chicago" paid tribute to the first lady of song, Ella Fitzgerald, and featured Staff Sgt. Terra Allen as the vocalist.

In her introductory remarks, Capt. Glandis E. Williams, the event's narrator, cited a National Science Foundation statistic. "Women make up 46 percent of the nation's workforce, but hold only 24 percent of the jobs in the technical or STEM fields," she said. "This year's observance theme ("Women Inspiring Innovation through Imagination: Celebrating Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics") highlights the need to encourage Americans to embrace careers in these areas."

Williams then introduced the first guest speaker, Francoise Bonnell, director of the USAWM. Her talk focused on the significant and historic achievements of women in the STEM fields.

"There was one young lady named Mary Blackmore who had a linguistics degree from Emory and Henry College," Bonnell said. "After enlisting in the Women's Army Corps, she was asked if she would be willing to serve (overseas) using her foreign language skills. When Blackmore accepted that challenge, she immediately received an FBI security clearance, cryptographic and combat skills training, and she was sent to New Guinea where she was put to work in General MacArthur's headquarters cracking Japanese code."

Despite the stresses of living in the jungle alongside male combat troops, and the challenge of figuring out the Japanese signal codes that changed two to three times each day, Blackmore excelled and, according to Bonnell's account, it contributed to the U.S. victory in the Pacific.

Other examples cited by the museum director included Helen Robertson, the only WAC assigned to the Army Veterinary Corps, and Mona Washington, a black businesswoman who joined the service at the onset of World War II and eventually became the primary pharmacist at Fort Dix, N.J.

"Today, the chief information officer, (Army) G-6, is Susan Lawrence. She oversees all of the technological needs of the Army and is focused on attracting women to the budding opportunities to be found in information technology," Bonnell said. "Lt. Gen. Patricia Horoho is the Army Surgeon General and the commander of the U.S. Army Medical Command. There are many others who continue to be trailblazers … and there will certainly be many more firsts to come … but we still have a long way to go in encourage women to embrace careers particularly in the STEM fields."

During her remarks, Faith Wilkerson, the interim director of the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs and sponsor of the STEM Mentor Program at Virginia Commonwealth University, said efforts to encourage young women to explore out-of-the-box technological or scientific career fields have been on the rise over the past few decades, but a lot more needs to be done.

"Women are still far less likely than men to major in computer science and engineering," she said. "The gender gap in STEM is rooted in the long-held, popular misconception that the field is just too big for girls, that it's geeky, that it requires a 24-7 focus and provides little benefit to society. Why would this picture be attractive to young girls?"

Public schools share part of the responsibility for STEM inequality as well, said Wilkerson, since they traditionally emphasize only the basics of science and mathematics. Furthermore, guidance counselors and even some parents of young women fail to encourage exploration of technological career fields.

"While it's not possible to achieve gender equality overnight," Wilkerson concluded, "changing some of the outdated norms and stereotypes that tend to hinder young women while trying to reach their full potential can make a big difference."

Page last updated Thu April 4th, 2013 at 11:04