The gender gap in technology is getting worse, despite great intentions for female science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education initiatives from government, industry, and nonprofits. The number of women entering computer science jobs, for example, is falling precipitously, from 37 percent in 1995 to just 24 percent today.
It’s a serious issue for the U.S. tech industry because:
- The STEM skills crisis is becoming more acute.
- Other countries are out-educating us on this front.
- New studies show that gender-balanced teams in tech companies perform better than male-dominant ones.
Companies’ bottom-lines could hinge on our ability to build a robust pipeline of future female engineers.
I am now convinced that mentorship of girls and young women is the critical missing piece of the puzzle. It’s not that girls are less interested or capable; it’s that they tend to lose interest in STEM as they grow older.
Recent research from Microsoft found that “girls and young women have a hard time picturing themselves in STEM roles. They need more exposure to STEM jobs, female role models, and career awareness and planning.” The study’s main solution to the problem was to provide girls with more exposure to positive role models and mentors that they can both relate to and aspire to become.
I could give you a host of other well-researched and data-laden reasons why the engineering community needs to do a better job mentoring girls and young women. But instead I will give you just one:
Do it for yourselves.
Besides raising a family, mentoring young women has been the most personally rewarding experience of my life. I began by volunteering at a mentoring firm for Women in Chicago and participated in formal mentorship programs at work, where I have helped female colleagues chart and thrive in their technology careers. Having daughters in middle school inspired me to volunteer at the Disney II magnet public school in Chicago teaching girls to code and create new technologies.
The opportunity to change young women’s lives and inspire the next generation of female engineers has profoundly improved my life for the better; not to mention being a great morale-boost. I’m passionate about it. I know from interviews with community members that most came to their careers thanks largely to a friend, mentor, or family member who inspired them.
If giving back doesn’t inspire you, then do it for your career. Mentorship infuses skills of teaching, problem solving, leadership, reason, organization, empathy, and interpersonal relationships that accelerates careers. It has certainly helped me in mine.
A Six-Point Plan
Becoming a mentor is easy. But I’ve learned through my years of experience a few tricks and learnings that most effectively engages young women in STEM interests:
1. Expose them early. My own mentorship experience combined with numerous studies confirms that the younger you can get girls experimenting and creating with technology, the more likely they’ll love it.
2. Bust the stereotypes of tech careers. This is perhaps the biggest obstacle keeping girls from getting into STEM. While the media has helped geek culture become cool to some extent, the stigma lingers for many girls that a career in tech will relegate them to a life of coding in a dark room. Which leads to the next point…
3. Reinforce the diversity of career opportunities. Technology is in everything these days, and career opportunities abound far beyond software and hardware design. Reinforce how STEM education can lead to everything from sales, training, and management to working in the latest data analysis and artificial intelligence (AI) breakthroughs.
4. Leverage your communities. Online communities are a global treasure trove of fellow engineers passionate about what they do, and generous with knowledge. At Newark element14, for example, we’ve had students come into the community seeking help in completing their senior-level projects, and were abundantly supported with advice. We’ve also created a STEM Academy within the community where mentors and teachers can access wonderful teaching curriculums, materials and ideas.
5. Leverage technology providers. Single-board computers like the micro:bit and Raspberry Pi were designed specifically to make the learning and teaching of coding fun and easy for kids. Rather than showing a PowerPoint presentation, these platforms enable creativity to come alive instantly. Many tech providers and organizations have programs that make these platforms available for students for free or low cost.
6. Engage with STEM organizations. A growing number of nonprofit organizations are emerging that inspire girls to explore the possibilities of STEM. They can help you become a better mentor, in addition to being a great place to volunteer. They offer everything from coding instruction and materials to hands-on workshops and summer camps. Some organizations that I like include:
- Techgirlz: A nonprofit dedicated to reducing the gender gap in technology occupations by focusing on girls at the crucial middle school age. It offers free workshops to get girls interested in different kinds of technology, shows them varied career options, and connects them with professionals in technology fields.
- Girls Who Code: Another nonprofit that aims to support and increase the number of women in computer science by changing the image of what a programmer looks like and does. It offers free summer programs and after-school clubs for teen girls.
- Brave Initiatives: Its mission is to empower high school girls to be agents of change in the world through design, coding, and leadership training. It runs a 5-day BraveCamp that gets participants involved in the creative and enthralling process of developing technology using design-thinking tools for social impact.
When I earned my undergraduate computer science degree, I constituted 50 percent of the total number of women in my graduating class. While we’ve made some progress in closing the gender gap since that time, much more work is needed to keep the U.S. tech industry competitive.
Mentorship is not only the best way to inspire more girls and young women to explore careers in technology; it yields much greater dividends in personal fulfillment.