Girls in STEM: Building a better future

It’s been widely reported that girls and women in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields face extra barriers to entry, as well as to promotion and equal pay in comparison to their male counterparts. Society has become more aware of the ways unconscious bias can influence outcomes and of how important it is that we work to create equal or better opportunities for underrepresented groups. But why does reaching equitable numbers of females in STEM remain such a challenge, and what specifically can we do about it?

Why do girls think STEM isn’t for them?

Research has shown that girls’ interest in technology lessens with age. Greater gender disparities are demonstrated at the high school and undergraduate levels than in elementary and middle school. My personal experience also supports this. I didn’t intend to major in a technology discipline in college until two friends in engineering, one male and one female, suggested I reconsider while we were working on a problem set for a calculus course. Women who do choose STEM career paths often experience social isolation. I recently spoke with a college-age woman who told me she was the only female in her computer science class. She said she wasn’t sure she belonged and wanted to be normal, suggesting this was a learned conclusion from her environment.

Both structural and personal biases can contribute to girls thinking STEM fields aren’t for them. While we’ve made some progress on this front, structural biases remain a major challenge. Outdated stereotypes and the myth that boys are better at STEM continue to influence the educational opportunities presented to girls and the messaging they receive from parents at a young age. Racial and ethnic bias, as well as socioeconomic bias, compound with gender bias for many girls, resulting in even fewer female STEM students and professionals from minority groups.

And personal bias can follow: Young girls, if they haven’t been encouraged in STEM subjects, can often lack confidence in themselves in science and math classes, or with technology in general. I lacked confidence in math until my friends told me that I did calculus well, had an analytical mindset and should go into technology. I’m forever grateful for how their encouragement changed my course in life.

What can we do to encourage girls in STEM?

Parents and other family members play a critical part in resisting and replacing narratives suggesting that STEM isn’t for girls. That includes introducing technology to children early on, teaching that academic abilities can be cultivated and reinforcing that girls are equally capable in the STEM disciplines. We can all play a part with work, care and attention in order to build a stronger ecosystem for tomorrow.

Educators need to consciously work to resist bias and create a supportive environment for girls to explore their curiosity in math and science, and show how this connects to related career possibilities.

Role models are also essential for young girls as they think about their future. Raising the profiles of women already working in STEM fields to give them greater visibility among young girls can have a powerful effect. In addition to encouraging my own daughter, this is the area where I’m making my own efforts.

You can find more evidence-based recommendations from the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) here.

We all have a part to play

Tech companies also have an important role in creating more gender equity in the industry; after all, this is our future workforce and we want the best talent to ensure that our pools of potential candidates are large and rich in diversity. IBM has a longstanding commitment to be a leader in diversity and inclusion, with initiatives like #SheCanSTEM and the P-TECH program (Pathways in Technology Early College High Schools), which is now in more than 100 schools in four different countries, helping students learn and apply skills for STEM disciplines. I’m proud to work for a company that’s dedicated to the future of the technology field and new-collar jobs.

Encouraging girls in STEM has been a passion project in my personal and professional life. For many years, I had the opportunity to participate in IBM “EXITE” camps (Exploring Interests in Technology & Engineering) for middle-school girls from socioeconomically challenged schools. I now lead a Girl Scouts troop and support the organization’s commitment to introducing and encouraging science, technology, engineering and math for its participants. Inside and outside my job, I’ve been honored to work toward building a better future for girls in STEM. The next great idea could come from anywhere, and innovation relies on making opportunities available for all.

IBM Systems Lab Services, where I serve as Vice President, is a diverse technical services organization that also has a female Chief Technology Officer and Distinguished Engineer, as well as two female Business Unit Executives and numerous female technical consultants and specialists. We are committed to upholding IBM’s values around diversity and inclusion on our work and building a better future for girls in STEM.