One day in her senior year of high school, Cristina Mittermeier sat on the floor with her classmates listening to a man talk about career opportunities in marine sciences while she looked up, transfixed, at the otherworldly images he showed on a screen.
Mittermeier knew right then that she wanted a career focused on the ocean. But her hometown of Cuernavaca, in central Mexico, was nowhere near the water, and there were no female scientists around who could offer her guidance. Mittermeier’s father wanted her to be an accountant, like him. Her grandmother wanted her to find a husband. Her mother, a psychologist, told her she should follow her dream.
Mittermeier couldn’t have imagined that three decades later, she’d be standing before a room of girls at the Microsoft store in Bellevue, Washington, encouraging them to consider a future in the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and math.
Girls need to know that there are a lot of women who have blazed a trail for them, and we are just waiting to see what they can do.
“When I look at this room, I recognize myself as a young girl,” she said to the standing-room-only crowd of more than 50 girls. “Growing up in Mexico, we didn’t have a lot of opportunities. It was so hard for me to imagine doing all these things.”
Mittermeier and her partner, Paul Nicklen, were at the store for Microsoft’s #MakeWhatsNext workshop, part of a broader campaign aimed at engaging young girls in STEM. As part of the #MakeWhatsNext campaign, Microsoft’s Global Ads team initiated a partnership with National Geographic for the March 18 event, one of six at Microsoft stores around the U.S. featuring women working in STEM fields — from a bioinformatics CEO to an astrophysicist and a young volcanologist in training. The event included a Facebook livestream with Jennifer Adler, a marine biologist and National Geographic Young Explorer, and presentations from the speakers, followed by an hour of coding instruction.
Mittermeier and Nicklen are renowned National Geographic photographers and conservationists who have traveled to more than 100 countries and worked in some of the remotest corners of the planet. They are also the co-founders of SeaLegacy, a Canada-based organization launched in 2015 that aims to combine the pair’s award-winning images with storytelling to raise awareness about climate change and protect marine ecosystems around the world. They told the audience at the workshop that the planet needs the contributions women in STEM can offer.
“We need great scientists out there like yourselves understanding oceans,” Nicklen said. “Half of the air we breathe comes from oceans.”
Our whole society loses out when a significant proportion of the world’s brainpower is not engaged in creating those solutions.
With the pair’s stunning color images as a backdrop, Mittermeier detailed her circuitous career path. Afraid to leave home after high school, she enrolled at a university in her hometown and studied communications for a year. She was getting straight A’s but wasn’t feeling challenged. So Mittermeier swallowed her fear and made the decision to move away and study science.
Because there was no major in marine biology available at the time in Mexico, Mittermeier got a degree in biochemical engineering. Her studies exposed her to industrial fishing and commercial food production, which cemented her passion for conservation.
“I did a 180 as soon as I left university,” she said.
Mittermeier hoped to become a scientist and get a Ph.D., but she married soon after finishing university and had three children. Her husband at the time was a scientist and anthropologist who studied tribal communities, and Mittermeier borrowed his camera and starting taking photos in the field. Her work caught the attention of the Houston Museum of Natural Science, which asked to include some of her images in an exhibition on Amazonian tribes. Mittermeier has now edited 24 photographic books and been named among the World’s Top 40 Most Influential Outdoor Photographers by Outdoor magazine.
“When I was starting my career, so many people said to me, ‘Don’t do that. Why don’t you become this or this instead?’” she said. “I’m so glad I persevered.”
Mittermeier is a role model for girls considering a career in STEM, but research points to a dearth of women like her as a primary reason more girls don’t enter those fields. Little early exposure to STEM subjects, lack of confidence in their own abilities and a masculine culture that discourages girls are also cited as factors. Just 6.7 percent of female college students in the U.S. graduate with STEM degrees, according to BestColleges.com, and women currently hold fewer than 25 percent of STEM jobs in the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.
Microsoft has launched several initiatives aimed at reducing that gender gap. The company partners with nonprofits such as Girls Who Code and Code.org to provide computer science classes and coding workshops, and Microsoft’s DigiGirlz initiative connects high school girls with Microsoft employees and other industry leaders through various events. Microsoft also works with policymakers to ensure that students have access to computer science classes.
Corporate Vice President Mary Snapp is the head of Microsoft Philanthropies, which launched in 2015 with a focus on providing technology to young people, particularly girls and underserved populations. Women’s representation in STEM is critical for reasons beyond equity, Snapp says.
“We need everyone to help to solve the big challenges our economies and our societies are facing,” she says. “Our whole society loses out when a significant proportion of the world’s brainpower is not engaged in creating those solutions. We want to encourage girls to stay in STEM so they can solve the problems they care about most, from finding solutions to climate change to curing cancer and beyond.”
Constance Adams knows firsthand how powerful the influences discouraging girls from STEM can be. Adams, who was the featured speaker at the March 18 workshop in Troy, Michigan, is a space architect and National Geographic Emerging Explorer who has designed habitations for Mars and helped design several space shuttles.
About a decade ago, Adams was passing a gift shop at the Johnson Space Center in Houston shortly before Halloween and noticed a child-sized replica of the distinctive orange launch entry suits worn by space shuttle crews. Delighted, she picked up one for her young daughter. Adams had been raising her as a single mother, taking her on work trips around the world, and the little girl was familiar with Adams’ work.
So Adams was shocked when, after presenting her daughter with the suit, she burst into tears.
“She said, ‘I can’t wear that — that’s for a boy,’” Adams recalls. “I was absolutely floored. If that child, growing up attached to my hip, had absorbed that narrative that astronauts weren’t women, wow. Somehow the girls really are not getting the picture that they have these options.”
Adams promptly arranged to bring her daughter to lunch with her friend Pamela Melroy, then a NASA astronaut. Adams’ daughter came away with an autographed photo and a new perspective on who could be an astronaut, but the experience stuck with Adams.
“I became much more conscious about doubling down on promoting STEM for women,” she says.
Despite the factors working against girls’ interest in STEM, Snapp believes the gender gap can and will be overcome.
“We’re already seeing some positive change. There is growing interest in computer science programs, for example, at the university level — in fact, some university science programs are having trouble keeping up with demand,” she says.
“And that growing interest, according to the universities we’re hearing from, is also coming from women. That’s one of the many reasons that I’m optimistic about the future for women in STEM.”
Back at the Bellevue workshop earlier this month, girls gathered at tables after the presentation and got to work on a coding exercise. Shilpa Asrani watched as her 7-year-old daughter, Trishaa Khanna, and two other girls huddled around a computer. Asrani said Trishaa was exposed to coding through her older brother and has a natural interest in science, but she thinks popular culture must do a better job of signaling to girls that they belong in STEM fields.
“I think the media needs to focus more on girls,” she said. “That’s what needs to happen.”
Trishaa said she liked hearing Mittermeier and Nicklen talk about wild animals and their environments because she hopes to become a veterinarian and work in a zoo.
“That’s my dream job. I want to be a vet, a zoo helper who takes care of the new baby animals who are born,” she said.
Kyra Mohr, 10, was intrigued by the chance to do some coding, which she considers fun. She hasn’t decided what she wants to do for a career yet, but thinks it will involve technology and space.
“I like space, planets and how humans have evolved to know how to go into space,” she said.
For Mittermeier, the workshop was an opportunity to provide the encouragement she wishes she’d had as a young girl.
“If I had imagined myself in these roles, it probably wouldn’t have taken me this long to get where I am,” she said. “Girls need to know that there are a lot of women who have blazed a trail for them, and we are just waiting to see what they can do.”
Photo of Constance Adams courtesy of National Geographic. All other images, from March 18 workshop in Bellevue, by Scott Eklund/Red Box Pictures.