What do you do when you’re faced with the knowledge that even young children have internalized the kinds of sexist notions that hold girls back? If you’re Audrey Shawley, you roll up your sleeves, grab your female friends and get to work smashing those preconceptions.
Shawley launched the non-profit Boundless Brilliance (BB) with Hannah Hayes and Nina Doeff after she first discovered the pervasive nature of false, gendered beliefs about intelligence.
“My junior year at Occidental [College], I was sitting in our student lounge just skimming the news when I came across a study that basically found that beginning at age six, boys and girls believe that intelligence is a male trait,” Shawley, who now serves as the BB Executive Director, told Ms. “This completely and utterly rocked me because I thought to myself, six years old, that’s kindergarten! When I read that, I wanted to do something about it. My determination to dispel the belief that girls are less capable than boys has materialized into Boundless Brilliance.”
BB seeks to close the gender gap in the STEM fields—science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Part of creating more parity involves ensuring that the field has diversity of thought, background and practice, but if young people are passionate about pursuing a career in STEM but have no role models or representation, it can be difficult to feel like they belong in that space.
For girls, finding possibility models in STEM can feel almost impossible—something Shawley knows intimately. “Being a biochemist, being a female biochemist, you’re not surrounded by a lot of women, especially women of color,” she said, “and it’s hard, it’s intimidating to be in that field but not see representation there.”
That’s why Shawley and her team recruited a group of female students from Occidental College to be their messengers—and dispatched them to elementary schools in northeast Los Angeles to work with students. After thirty-minute presentations featuring loads of interactive content and even a hands-on science experiment, each event culminates with a call and response, with the volunteers and children all chanting, “I am brilliant!”
The language of the program is as purposeful as its mission.
“I think the word brilliance is a really powerful word that’s not thrown very frequently especially not for young women,” Shawley explained. “So by telling them directly, ‘you are brilliant and your potential is limitless,’ I think that really resonates with them. Then, having them say it out loud, they start to internalize it. I would tell all of these young girls that they are brilliant and their potential is boundless. They are so much more capable than they have every been told before and in order for them to continue and persevere in these field, I think it’s really important for them to believe it.”
But the young girls cheering during presentations are not the only ones benefiting from Shawley’s inspirational program. Going into classrooms, providing inspiration for future scientists and seeing six-year-olds light up with excitement can have tremendous confidence-boosting effects for the volunteers, too.
“The impact of Boundless Brilliance is really multidimensional, because the elementary school students that hear the message are obviously empowered to become scientists—but so are the college students that deliver the message,” said Shawley. “It is a really powerful thing to be a part of, to be a role model to these students and to see on their faces how amazed they are at science and to see that you’re the one that exposed them to that.”
For Shawley, working for and with young people and creating an opportunity for them to explore their potential has been an experience that unleashed incredible joy—even when she was juggling the project alongside her responsibilities to finish an undergraduate degree in biochemistry with a religious studies minor and run the synchronized swimming club on her campus.
“What I found was that Boundless Brilliance was not just another obligation, it became something that I wanted to do whenever I had free time. Boundless Brilliance was kind of my break from schoolwork,” Shawley told Ms. “It was reframed in my mind, not as a chore, not as work but as something I was really passionate about doing and wanted to spend time as much time as possible engaging in.”
Shawley plans to continue devoting her time to the program—and she’s seeking more co-conspirators. The BB team is seeking inspired college students that want to start a chapter and bring the program to their local community, following the model Shawley and her co-founders created.
While the gender gap in STEM is beginning to close, there is still much more ground to cover. Who better to lead the charge but a group of bright, talented female scientists?