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Women’s History Month: helping girls develop grit

Dr. Lynn Stauffer, 52, Dean of Sonoma State University’s (SSU) School of Science and Technology, says it takes “grit” for a woman to succeed in fields more commonly associated with men, such as science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

Dr. Stauffer defines grit as “that willingness to be stubborn and not give up too soon. It’s also about being willing to ask a lot of whys, and to ‘flash doubt’ at some things you’re being told.”

Possessing a healthy measure of “stick–to– itivenes” herself, Dr. Stauffer has earned a Ph.D, in computer science, raised three children, and risen through the roles of teacher, department chair and now dean. She understands from personal experience the challenges that women face in breaking through the glass ceiling separating them from STEM careers.

She recalls an incident that occurred in the office of a mathematics professor whose course she was taking at UC Irvine. According to Dr. Stauffer, he offered this observation about her, “You ask a lot of questions, so I figured you weren’t getting it, that you wouldn’t be good at this.”

“I’m sure he didn’t think that what he was saying was going to discourage me,” Dr. Stauffer said, “But boy did it. So sometimes we have to build this muscle of wanting to prove people wrong, despite the obstacles.”

Thirty years into her career, Dr. Stauffer acknowledges that bias still exists, if in a more subtle way, on the part of both men and women. “There is still an element of surprise that we connect with women who are part of STEM disciplines; that you’re the exception rather than the rule.”

Helping girls develop grit starts with support from solution-oriented parents, who encourage and help their daughters surmount obstacles.  “I was raised in a household where my parents would say, ‘what hoop can we jump through to get you there?’ I didn’t realize until later how valuable that was,” Dr. Stauffer said.

Schools, too, can take up the banner as girls progress through their educations, by presenting STEM curricula in innovative ways and offering engaging extra-curricular activities that play to girls’ strengths and interests. Dr. Stauffer cites as an example programs such as Women in Tech at SSU, a program founded last fall that brings together members of the Society of Women Engineers and Women in Computer Science groups on campus, as well as STEM faculty, to take on special projects.

One of the projects they’ve undertaken is forming a team to participate in the Solar Regatta in Sacramento in May, hosted by the Sacramento Municipal Utility District. The challenge is to retrofit existing boats or build their own and power them using solar energy.

Dr. Stauffer feels fortunate to hold a position at the nexus of science, technology and education that affords her the opportunity to impact so many young lives. And she finds inspiration in working with students who aspire to succeed despite the odds often stacked against them.

Among the students she points to is a woman who, while facing many personal challenges, earned a degree in computer science and became a manager at a well-known software company. “I really admire her for what she was able to achieve, because she had so many skills to tap into that went beyond science and engineering—such as organizational abilities, leadership and vision.”

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