It is heartening to hear a whole lot of dialogue and conversation happening around how to get more women in tech and how to help them succeed in tech careers. Pardon me everyone, but I don’t know when it all started being noise and not meaningful conversation. I am going to be blunt in saying that, to me, it has become white noise now. And I have good reasons for it.
Logic tells me that to have more and more women in tech tomorrow, there should be a greater number of girls in tech today. They need to be immersed in technology, science, math, engineering and be passionate about the subject. They also need to make supporting choices in education and job market to emerge as technocrats, tech-entrepreneurs and tech-leaders. Are they doing it?
I co-founded and ran a venture called Cloud Mentor for five years. We provided hands-on experiential STEM education to school-age children. By hands-on, I mean really hands-on – there were screwdrivers, pliers, cutters, wooden boards, industrial grade tools, metal L-clamps, nuts and bolts, wires, chemicals, LEDs, transistors, resistors, sensors and a lot many fascinating things in our classrooms. We ran our programmes in two formats.
The first was an in-school programme – mandatory for all students. In most school classrooms, there was an equal proportion of boys and girls. All of them enjoyed the experiments and model-making activities equally. We never noticed any trend of either boys or girls being better or faster in applying STEM concepts in building working models or coming up with inventive ideas. That was a good reassurance that innately girls are as well-equipped as boys to handle tech/STEM subjects. And this was across grades 1 to 9.
We also ran highly popular Summer Camps in one of the most entrepreneurial and techie neighbourhood in probably the whole of India. Now the Summer Camp enrolment was not a mandate by school, it was obviously based on the child’s interest. We had between 300 and 500 children aged between six and 15 years attending our Summer Camp every year. Children could choose from an array of about eight to 10 different courses and the most sought after courses were “Junior Engineer” (for ages 7-10) and “Senior Engineer” (for ages 10-15).
Year after year, I noticed the same trend. In “Junior Engineer” batches, boys and girls were close to 50-50 percent. In “Senior Engineer” batches, the percentage of girls dropped to less than 10 percent! What is it that makes a nine-year-old girl suddenly lose interest in engineering courses once she turns 10? There were no girls in most of our robotics batches for 10+ age group. With great difficulty, I got some girls to attend our courses on 3-D printing and product design when we first launched them. It was equally difficult to get girls into our senior programming and app development courses, although Junior Coding courses for the age group of seven to 10 years had 50 percent of girl population.
And remember – by virtue of our centre’s location, we catered to the population comprising predominantly of the best techies and startup entrepreneurs of India. So there was no reason to believe that such parents would discourage their daughters from enrolling into engineering courses.
So what is stopping our girls from diving into technology and engineering with passion? As mentioned above, it is not for lack of aptitude or of parental encouragement (at least in the environment I mention). Year after year, I spoke to hundreds of parents to understand what was happening. Our Kitchen Science courses that involved hands-on cooking were overrun with boys – thanks to the MasterChef TV show! But girls were hesitating to pick up screwdrivers and soldering gun and even an App Inventor tutorial after the age of 10-12. They were losing out on the practical skills that could be gained via tinkering, deconstructing gadgets, coding though the night – all pursuits that make a future garage entrepreneur!
On the other hand, the trainers in our classrooms were predominantly women. I always hoped that having a women engineer teach and build STEM-based projects would inspire the girls to wield tools without hesitation. I hope it did have some effect. But what I also noticed was that every time we were on a recruitment drive, we would get tons of applications from women engineers – electronics, computer science, chemical, telecommunications – and they were ready to teach first grade general science!
These were young graduates and I couldn’t help asking them why they didn’t want to practice what they learnt in the four years of engineering. They always said that the industry jobs were too hectic and stressful and they were happier doing school teaching. Why did they even do engineering then in the first place? Two common reasons emerged – it was just a default choice because which other degree was respectful enough? Secondly, their parents thought match-making with a good “well-settled” engineer groom would be easier if their daughter was an engineer too! This is the harsh reality behind why you have so many girls in engineering colleges and so few in tech company corner offices!
From many conversations I had with girls’ parents – who were at times equally hapless that their daughter who used to be so interested in electronics earlier is now refusing to look at it – I could see the following trends emerge:
- Fear of being perceived as nerdy: As per prevalent popular culture, nerdy boys are acceptable, but geeky girls? Social suicide!
- Are there other girls?: Girls wanting to enroll into engineering courses always enquired if there were other girls in the batch. If not, they would cancel too. I could never figure out how to stop this chicken-egg situation!
- She’d rather do dance/music/art this summer: Girls on the threshold of teen-age felt this sudden urge to indulge in more ‘perceived girly’ pursuits. It baffled their parents too.
I do not know what to do about this. I know for sure that this is real – most girls mentally retire from tech aspirations at the age of 10! In most cases after that, it is not intense passion for tech, but merely a desire to take a socially acceptable route that takes them into tech careers, and no wonder why they are ready to drop it at any sign of discomfort (exceptional outliers exist too).
The so-called “leaky pipeline” of women in STEM starts not when they become mothers as the popular perception is, but much earlier - on the verge of their adolescence! Is our popular culture to blame for this? Is it our parenting? Is there something about the workplaces and work culture that needs to change? Are our books, media, stories, role models not conveying the right message? How will we have more women in tech tomorrow if there are no girls in tech today? I look for answers and would love to hear your thoughts.
(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of YourStory.)