There is a ton of discussion today about women’s representation in STEM fields and how we can do better. As with any multi-faceted problem, there is no one right way to solve it
Earlier this month, The Real Reason Women Quit Tech came out, and drew attention to a study that found the top reason women leave companies is because of “a concern for lack of advancement opportunities.” In fact, women are twice as likely to quit the tech industry as men.
Go back to the start of the tech pipeline and what we know is that in childhood, girls and boys start out equally strong in math and science, but lose interest along away. Guess when that shift starts happening? You guessed it – middle school.
We have a leaky pipeline.
Girls With Ideas has found some great partnership opportunities with organizations working to keep girls interested in STEM. We have a hypothesis about girls and STEM. Rather than thinking about science, technology, engineering and math as end, we need to start thinking about them as tools that solve problems.
We partnered with our local Open Minds, Open Doors STEM conference hosted by the Grant Wood AEA, the Cedar Rapids branch of AAUW and Coe College and introduced this concept. As we think about career exploration in general, and STEM career exploration in particular, we believe strongly that finding a fulfilling career comes not through the career itself, but finding a problem that you are in love with solving.
We helped to kick off the conference by introducing this idea of falling in love with a problem and encourage the girls to think about that question throughout the day. At lunch time we had over 500 7th and 8th grade girls rotate our lunchtime keynote where they got to identify problems and opportunities they see right now. And we talked about how the solutions that we see in the world, the products that we use, how everything started as an idea in someone’s brain.
After a little insight into how the brain works, the girls then got to practice some activities that train their brain to have ideas. After each activity we would all shout together "Thanks, Brain!" And it was a lot of fun.
The problems that we heard from the girls ranged from sexism and racism in their schools to issues with mascara clumping. One girls stated that she likes how it feels to have just had a shower, but hates the whole process of having to shower. At first glance that may seem like a really wide continuum ranging from serious, societal issues to the more superficial. And that may be true.
Here’s the thing, though. Learning to identify problem and opportunities is a skill. And the types of problems and opportunities we see change over time, as we grow, develop, and have new encounters with the world. Giving girls space to give voice to the problems and opportunities they are encountering is practice for the future. And how the people in their lives respond, will set the stage for how much or how little they share their ideas in the future.
And the truth, is we have no way of knowing what can come from an idea. Technological advances discovered in one place are often adapted in another and may have uses we cannot yet see. A middle-schooler frustrated by inconvenience of showering may seem superficial. But let’s say that is the problem that gets her interested in STEM and as she begins to learn more about science and engineering she discovers it is a problem she could solve. And through that experience she learns to see herself as capable of solving problems that don’t have readily apparent answers. That confidence encourages her to take on tougher problems, or see additional ways that her solution can be applied.
One thing is certain. Girls receive messages that what they have to say, what they have to contribute isn’t important. And it has lasting impacts into their careers. We absolutely need to address the cultural norms that create that situation. And while we are working on that, we also need to do everything we can to teach our girls early that their observations about the world and what they have to say about it do matter.