What Do You Want to Be When You Grow Up?May 06, 2011
Ah, the age-old question. Although I am at least a few years removed from childhood, I’m still searching for the answer. Aren’t you? Even middle-aged Barbie has posed the question over 126 times.
Last week, I was invited to reflect upon my answer as a guest speaker during the career fair at the Washington Middle School for Girls, an institution in an underserved, urban area in Washington, D.C., that educates fourth through eighth grade girls who are at risk for dropping out.
I shared some of my journey —switching majors because I wasn’t prepared for the math my chosen profession required, pushing myself to graduate in four years before my finances ran out, scraping together pennies to keep a roof over my head, being at the dawn of a revolution, and being laid off but eventually landing on my feet. The path was not straight, and it certainly was not unique. Each of the presenters had faced major personal and professional challenges along the way to becoming a pediatrician, a litigator, a nurse, an entrepreneur, a physician’s assistant, a project manager, and a website manager.
Listening to career-day speeches may have been as exciting as watching paint dry for the teenagers, but I was awed by the women sharing the stage and even more impressed by the career projects the seventh graders presented. Each student researched a prospective career, shadowed and interviewed a professional in that industry, and presented the results of her research. I met a future FBI agent; a CEO; a teacher; and several science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) professionals, including a soon-to-be computer engineer, a marine biologist, and a zoologist.
Michélle Hamlett, the future zoologist, came dressed for the job in a white coat with a professional nametag clipped on. She excitedly talked about her desire to travel the world, study large animals — especially cats — and share her knowledge as a scientist on television. Goodness knows women are underrepresented there.
I was impressed by the students but surprised that many of them were unfazed by the low salary outlook for their chosen professions. It made me wonder what these young ladies will face in the workplace in a few decades. Will they earn less than their fellow male graduates one year out of college? Will they lose interest in STEM fields or drop out of the workforce? Will they have flexible work-life policies, including paid sick days, to balance career and family? Will they get equal pay for equal work?
AAUW, our members, and our partners will continue to advocate for the economic and social well-being of these young women in the workforce. And who knows — by then, I may have figured out what I want to be when I grow up, too.