A lot of tech companies in the United States, especially in Silicon Valley, are trying to improve their diversity statistics and that includes having more technical women join the company. While there are many aspects to fixing the skewed gender ratio, which we’ll look at in the course of this series, most companies are quickly realizing that there is what’s being called a “pipeline problem”. Simply put, there just aren’t enough women trained in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields to recruit. And it all starts in the formative years – either girls are conditioned out of STEM careers by being told that those fields aren’t for women, or if they are interested in STEM activities, they’re not being extended the resources to build on their interests.
Research shows that in elementary school, girls and boys equally like science and math, and all the aspects that lead to STEM – problem solving, building things, taking things apart. In middle school, however, girls’ interests start diverging towards non-STEM careers and activities. Not coincidentally, this is when children, both boys and girls, start becoming aware of gender perceptions, how society works, and media’s portrayals of women and men. Stereotypes start showing up, like – girls can’t do math, science and math are for boys, only men become engineers, a scientist is a man in a white lab coat, boys can openly ask questions, girls should remain quiet and not be heard, and so on. The list is long, and chances are every girl in the world has had these “pearls of wisdom” hurled at her at some point or the other. I know I have.
Despite all the stereotypes, studies show that around 74% of girls in high school remain interested in STEM activities. Here’s the catch – most girls who are interested in STEM activities do not choose science or engineering careers. 87% of high school girls interested in STEM activities choose non-STEM majors in college and non-STEM careers. The obvious conclusion is that engineering has a perception problem – most high school girls who like STEM activities aren’t aware that all these activities are exactly what contribute to a fulfilling career in engineering. Apart from the stereotype that engineering is a male domain, the problem also lies in the fact that people of influence in a girl’s life aren’t explaining to her what engineering really is. Studies show that boys are repeatedly told that science and engineering are a lucrative career option by parents, teachers, school career counselors, and so on, but girls are not. This is supported by the fact that most girls who choose STEM majors and careers personally know someone in a STEM field – a parent, family member or family friend – who has taken the time to explain engineering and problem solving to them. This is an especially powerful influence for a girl if her mother or elder sister is in a STEM career, and therein lies the importance of role models.
Role models are extremely important in a child’s life, and most girls have fewer role models in STEM in their life. As a results, most programmes aimed at getting more girls involved in STEM careers not only devise a methodology that has girls build something to show them how STEM can be fun, but also have some sort of role model aspect to them. Techbridge is one such programme that includes both aspects. I was part of a Techbridge event at work where the programme was broken into two segments – the first segment had some women engineers at our company talk about what they do and why they liked engineering so much. The second segment had the girls break up into teams and build an engine. The interesting thing about this activity was that they had to go about it in the same way that an engineer in a hardware company would have to build something – assemble a build plan, present it to a director and get their input, figure out how much the parts would cost, make a bill of materials (BOM), run it by their finance controller, go to the “shop” to procure parts, look at the design sheet and then build it. This near-real world exercise teaches the students what engineering really is. I had fun playing the part of the director because that gave me the opportunity to ask the girls questions and make sure they understood the physics of it all.
On interacting with the girls later, I found out that most of them had no idea that an engineer’s work is actually like this – solving problems by designing systems and then building them. A majority of them also had no idea that women went into engineering; they had been told that it’s not a suitable career for a woman to pursue. The few who were aware that STEM careers are definitely an option did so because they personally knew a woman who’d pursued it. While it’s gratifying to expel some of these notions, it’s tiring to come up against them again and again.
Techbridge announced that in 2013-14, they had reached out to 14,055 girls, 96% of whom now believe that women can take on a STEM career. Another such program is Technovation, a global teaching initiative+competition that promotes technical expertise as well as an entrepreneurial spark by challenging girls to build apps that solve a community problem. The tangible feedback loop Technovation has built by enabling the participants to identify a problem, build something to solve it, and then seeing it solved is very transformative. In 5 years, there have been 2,500 participants from 28 countries build 650 apps – truly global!
Girlstart is another programme focused on fostering interest in STEM and work with K-12 girls, especially from low-income neighborhoods. They’ve worked with around 40,000 girls so far. Girls Who Code is a non-profit working to close the gender gap in STEM by exposing girls in school to computer programming and regularly bringing in famous women in tech like Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook and Marissa Mayer of Yahoo! to talk to the participating students. This is a great example of introducing girls to role models – talking to these role models who’ve risen to executive and leadership positions in technical companies inspires confidence in these girls about choosing STEM careers. This is especially important if they’re growing up in an environment that demotivates them from having these career aspirations in the first place.
In conclusion, there are three factors that will result in more girls considering STEM fields as career options – breaking the cycle of conditioning and encouraging them to pursue STEM the same way boys are encouraged, providing them the resources to understand how to further their interests in STEM activities and explaining what scientists, engineers and mathematicians do, and exposing them to role models so they can see a clear career progression if they choose STEM. Here’s the thing: No one’s saying every girl must pursue a STEM career. Instead, give them a choice and let them know it’s an option. Don’t discourage them before they’ve even had a chance to consider it.
More importantly, don’t underestimate girls and assume that they can’t handle the pressures of a STEM career. There is no scientific evidence showing women are less capable than men in STEM related aptitude. And yes, it’s sometimes hard for a woman to break through that STEM barrier, but that’s only because it’s traditionally been an all-male domain. Things are slowly changing and most women engineers I know, myself included, thoroughly enjoy their work and can’t imagine having taken up a non-STEM career. It’s very exhilarating to solve a problem and watch your design being built! For all you know, your support today could lead to a female Nobel Prize or Turing Award winner tomorrow.
With inputs from Pranav Pai.