Rebecca Allred's path to a doctoral program provides a glimpse of how it's happening — and how crucial access and support can be.
It began, she says, with her first role model — her mother, Janet Mikulas.
Mikulas, who got her engineering degree in the 1970s from Virginia Tech, can hardly imagine what it would be like to have so many women peers, as her daughter did at William and Mary.
"You know," Mikulas remembers her mother whispering to her after she announced her major to her parents, "Dad always said you should be an engineer."
She was stunned. Why didn't she know this? Why hadn't her father told her?
Her mother explained, as best she could, that he had felt it was wrong to encourage her to enter a male-dominated field, that he thought he was supposed to encourage her to be a mother and a secretary.
"He did it with the very best of intentions. He taught me a million things all his life. I was his best buddy," Mikulas said. "But he couldn't quite tell me what he really thought."
Mikulas and her husband, also an engineer, vowed that it would be different for their daughters. "We decided that we'd let them be what they wanted to be," she says.
Some would say there was no way Allred — known as Rebecca Mikulas before she married her college sweetheart in 2009 — could have failed. She had educational opportunities that many do not, including a private school in rural Virginia where classes were small and where she was given the chance to study at her own pace. She also had the smarts, skipping kindergarten and second grade and taking college classes by the time she was in middle school.
She finished her high school requirements by age 16 but then decided to take more math and science courses at a public high school, where she also excelled at volleyball, basketball and track.
Her parents always worked to integrate math and science into everyday life on their family farm and during dinnertime conversations.
But she also had teachers who encouraged and challenged her — another key, experts say, in keeping girls engaged.
Her mother remembers how Rebecca's high school chemistry teacher put off retiring for a year so she could have Rebecca as a student in her advanced-placement class. The teacher was certain she'd be her first student to receive the top score of 5 on the AP chemistry test. And Rebecca did.
She was considering colleges, including Harvard, around the time when Harvard's then-president, Lawrence Summers, made controversial comments questioning women's aptitude for top-level science and math. He later stepped down.
Unfazed, 17-year-old Rebecca went to William and Mary on a track scholarship. There, she took a chemistry class with Harbron — and applied for a spot in Harbron's lab.
She quickly realized she'd found her next mentor.
"She was so animated and funny — and into what she was doing," Allred says of her professor. "I wanted to be a part of it."
When she first joined Harbron's lab, she was the only woman student.
"I had to learn my boy social dynamics," Allred says, laughing and noting that, at that point, many of her interactions at her Mormon church and in sports were with other women.
You wouldn't think that would matter much. But Harbron and other professors say there's an interesting dynamic they often see in coed labs. Women tend to hang back, they say, and let men take the lead role.
"They're so afraid of being wrong. I don't think guys have that fear," Harbron says. "If they're admitting they don't know something, then they are admitting a vulnerability.
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