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Meena Harris Wants Women to Know Just How Far STEM Can Take You: ‘You Can’t Be What You Can’t See’

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Bestselling children’s book author, entrepreneur, and “recovering lawyer” Meena Harris has a clear passion for celebrating successful women, a trait that’s no surprise with just a peek at either her family tree or her published works: Ambitious Girl
and Kamala and Maya’s Big Idea
The latter, her 2020 children’s book debut, was inspired by the childhood of her mom, accomplished lawyer and policy advisor Maya Harris and her aunt, Vice President Kamala Harris — and Meena has made it clear before that these powerful women inspired much more than just her first book. Now, both in her ever-expanding career and as a mom to two young girls at home, Meena Harris is thinking about how to give the next generation of women even bigger and bolder opportunities than she herself was exposed to growing up. And her new thirty-minute film In Her Element, featuring female leaders in technology across three vastly different industries, plays a key role in helping Harris succeed in her mission. In a new interview with SheKnows, Harris explains why she might have benefited from seeing a film like this growing up and explains the role — and limitations — of representation in inspiring the next generation, including her own two young daughters.

In Her Element
is a documentary-style film directed by Kate Kunath and produced by Reese Witherspoon’s production company Hello Sunshine and Hewlett Packard Enterprise, featuring three conversations between Harris and these inspirational leaders: rocket scientist Aisha Bowe, team principal for a professional racing team Susie Wolff, and music engineer Laura Escudé, who famously worked with Kanye West and Jay-Z.

Harris describes each of the women as “revolutionary leaders and pioneers in their own fields” — and she’s particularly blown away at how each one of these women has used technology to innovate and push their craft forward.

“I always sort of assumed like, oh, technical roles aren’t for me, right? I sort of self-selected out of it just assuming that’s not for me, I don’t understand it, I don’t have exposure to the variety of possibilities,” Harris explains. “I think I closed myself up to that.

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Talking with Bowe, Wolff, and Escudé, Harris was reminded once again just how broadly technology could be applied, despite thinking previously it just wasn’t for her.

“It was so cool to see how each of these women is pursuing such different passions through different technologies,” she says. “We know that representation drives inspiration. You can’t be what you can’t see. I think about this a lot now, as a parent of two little girls.”

Harris shares daughters Amara and Leela with husband Nikolas Ajagu, and she’s raising them with the same confidence and ambition she credits her mom Maya and others as encouraging in her as a child. But Harris also constantly sees where we need to press further, which is how she landed on the issue of visibility for women in STEM.

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Aisha Bowe in ‘In Her Element’ HPE.

“Women, despite making up nearly half of the U.S. workforce, are still vastly underrepresented in science, technology, engineering, math — STEM,” she lays out. “And we see it at every level: starting with undergraduate and graduate, studies show that, for example, 35 percent of women earn undergraduate degrees in STEM, 34 percent in Ph.D. programs. But there’s a huge drop when you talk about actually taking that degree and going into a career in STEM. It drops down to 27 percent. And then. thinking about leadership in STEM, it goes down from 27 percent to a paltry 5 percent.”

Part of the solution, for Harris, is making sure young people see examples of women like Bowe, Escudé, and Wolff, who are at the top of their fields and demonstrate the broad applications of education in STEM. Reflecting on the reactions to her kids books Kamala and Maya’s Big Idea
and Ambitious Girl, Harris says that kids really [light] up at knowing that the characters are real people.”

“Representation and visibility don’t mean anything without the structural change and policy change that we need.”

“Instead of just reading about women in history books, knowing that they exist in the world today, and they’re doing these things,” Harris continues. “That goes to the power of representation and actually being able to see yourself in someone else in real time.”

Vice President Kamala Harris certainly meant a lot in terms of representation as the first woman, Black, South-Asian VP in this country’s history, and Meena Harris, always looking ahead, is careful to caution that representation, while a clear next step, is not the final solution to our problems.

“There’s real power in visibility and representation,” Harris tells SheKnows. “But that is not to the exclusion and cannot come without other really important changes. Some of the much harder stuff that I think cannot happen overnight, like breaking down barriers and challenging bias. It’s also about holding institutions accountable and [undoing] those societal norms that keep women from accessing technical fields.”

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Laura Escudé in ‘In Her Element’ HPE.

But: “Representation is not enough,” and especially not after this pandemic.

“We are looking at, in the last two years, more than two million women leaving the US workforce,” Harris lays out. “When we talk about progress…It often can feel like one step forward, two steps back, and we have been set back by this pandemic…It is not sufficient nor reasonable to say just get back to work when people are underpaid, when they do not have affordable child care, when they’re working in precarious hourly wage jobs that are not providing them livable wages to juggle all the different responsibilities that we all have. We need to support people. This pandemic really showed the consequences when we don’t have that social safety net in place.”

“We need to continue that conversation. Let’s continue to acknowledge that that existed before the pandemic. And I hope that we see real change going forward,” she says.

In other words: She really, really believes in the power of representation, but she’s equally serious about coupling visibility with action and long-term change.

“Representation and visibility don’t mean anything, frankly,” she says, “without the structural change and policy change that we need.”

In Her Element is available for streaming now on Apple TV, Amazon
, Google Play, and YouTube.

Before you go, click here to see celebrity women of color share the first movie or TV character who made them feel seen.
Diana Ross

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