Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg wrote an absolutely beautiful response to a commenter on his page that encourages girls to be the heroes of their own stories and do amazing things in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math):
Zuckerberg had posted about his "personal challenge" for 2016 — a modest goal of trying to build himself a home artificial intelligence system like Jarvis in Iron Man to help him with household and work tasks. You know, as you do.
One woman was obviously impressed with this, and commented that she tells her granddaughters to "date the nerd in school" because he might turn out to be somebody like Mark Zuckerberg.
The comment reflected some pretty old-fashioned ideas about how women gain power and status in society: by marrying into it. Zuckerberg gently suggested the commenter rethink this idea and instead encourage her granddaughters to "be the nerd" and become the next great inventor.
Be the nerd you wish to see in the world. It's a fantastic affirmation for girls who grow up reading stories where the boys are the ones on hero's quests and the girls are there to fall in love with them. And it's a necessary one to repeat over and over again if we as a society want to help women and girls succeed in STEM fields.
Women in STEM fields face systematic discrimination
Women in science, math, engineering, or technology have a hard time at just about every level of hiring for academic positions, due to the unconscious bias of those who do the hiring. There's overt sexism, like that awful peer reviewer who said women researchers should get help from men, and subtler forms, like how male researchers tend to choose fewer female trainees to work in their labs. And the STEM bias starts as early as grade school.
This usually isn't because people intentionally discriminate against women and girls. The grandmother who made the initial comment on Zuckerberg's page later clarified that she is an independent woman who has started two businesses and done everything in life herself, and that she encourages her granddaughters to do the same.
Harvard has a fascinating research project that tries to measure unconscious biases. You may believe with all your heart that women and men are equally capable at science or math, Harvard's researchers say, but your automatic associations may show otherwise. This explains how even a feminist science teacher who knows she is being observed can still give a disproportionate amount of talking time to the white male students in her classroom. And it explains how a self-made woman still encourages her granddaughters to marry into status instead of seek it themselves.
Bias can be a chicken-and-egg problem. Our culture, institutions, and common practices help ingrain bias into us, but our biases also reinforce the common practices that institutionalize bias. That's why it's so important to consciously, and constantly, challenge these biases anywhere we can in order to break the cycle. Comments like Zuckerberg's are a great start.