Just days before leaving to compete for the title of Miss America, Miss Utah Kara Arnold was talking to a reporter by phone outside a Nordstrom.
She was on the hunt for the perfect pair of shoes — the missing piece in a wardrobe of dozens of ensembles she'd need before departing Wednesday for the Miss America competition in Las Vegas.
"It's sometimes tedious," she said, describing the "girly" work of getting each physical detail right, of putting together a spreadsheet of the 30-some outfits she needs to pack for the multi-day event. But "if I'm prepared, I have a chance of winning the competition."
While she'll get her moment under the hot stage lights, in the designer gown, in front of the national TV cameras Jan. 12, the real work has been spending the past few months traveling the state as the Miss Utah titleholder and inspiring students to consider careers in science, technology and math.
The 22-year-old aspiring doctor from Bountiful said she put medical school on hold for a year, instead appearing at school assemblies sometimes multiple times a day to perform science experiments and show without words that the lab isn't just a man's world.
"I can break the stereotypes that girls can't go into science," Arnold said. "It's interesting that a made-up stereotype can prevent them from going into the field."
Science is actually a great fit for a woman's nurturing nature, Arnold said: Women want careers where they'll be making a difference, but may not see that the field is "relevant and purposeful" in that mission.
Her message can be especially hard to instill in Utah, where women trail men in college enrollment. Data from 2010 shows that 49 percent of students enrolled in Utah's public colleges are women, compared with more than 57 percent female enrollment on the national level.
A task force convened by Gov. Gary Herbert in 2011 found Utah women are particularly underrepresented in business, science, technology, engineering and math programs.
That lack of diversity in the workforce could mean fewer fresh ideas and could have consequences for the country at large, Arnold said.
"We won't stay as a global competitor without a strong workforce of innovative workers," she said.
Miss Utah said she's talked with Herbert about ways to tackle the gender gap. It's important that students take the most challenging science and math classes in high school, she notes, so they're prepared for the rigor of college classes.
Arnold also recommends parents work closely with their children on homework, or perhaps give them extra math work — something her mother, a fifth-grade teacher, did to help her succeed.
And there's also just telling girls and young women the benefits of studying science and technology.
"Science creates problem-solving skills," she said. "They can take these fields of study and apply them to anything, even if they're just going to be a stay-at-home mom."
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