“I hope you will not think any the less of me for being a girl!”

This plea was sent to Albert Einstein by a young South African in the 1940s, and was recently unearthed as part of Alice Caprice’s Dear Professor Einstein: Albert Einstein’s Letters to and from Children. Although brief, Tyfanny’s words capture the self-consciousness and self-doubt that have for so long plagued women who aspire to careers in science and technology.

In the letter, dated Sept. 19, 1946, a seemingly agonized Tyfanny admits to Einstein that she has left out a potentially damaging detail about herself. “I forgot to tell you, in my last letter, that I was a girl. I mean I am a girl,” the young scientist writes. “I have always regretted this a great deal, but by now I have become more or less resigned to the fact.”

The physicist’s pithy response is a timeless lesson that bears repeating, all these decades later. “I do not mind that you are a girl, but the main thing is that you yourself do not mind,” the Nobel Prize winner replied. “There is no reason for it.”

There really is no reason why girls should doubt their abilities in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). But for years, popular culture has fostered an environment that, purposefully or not, sends women and girls the message that boys should handle the power tools, lest the girls’ dresses get a little dusty.

The gender imbalance in the sciences today, more than 60 years after Einstein encouraged Tyffany to feel confident in both her scientific passions and her gender, is arguably more pronounced than in any other field: Only 26% of all STEM workers in the U.S. are women.

This is a problem, especially given America’s already-lagging educational system. “If we’re going to out-innovate and out-educate the rest of the world, we’ve got to open doors for everyone. We need all hands on deck, and that means clearing hurdles for women and girls as they navigate careers in science, technology, engineering and math,” First Lady Michelle Obama said in a 2011 statement.

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