It’s obvious to even the most casual observer that the tech industry fares poorly when it comes to attracting women. Surely you don’t need me to trot out diversity statistics? To address the inequities, many organizations laudably devote attention to outreach activities for girls, such as community hackathons and school events. Many of these events happen in underrepresented communities.
But how do you know if your Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM, or STEAM when it also incorporates the arts) events for girls are succeeding? What’s the best way for you to present information that prepares girls for tech field careers? Those are the questions I set out to answer for this article. To find out, I asked some experts. (I didn’t always get permission to use their full names, as you will soon see.) I also limited my attention to K-12 students as college issues raise even more questions.
Certainly, girls can and do get excited about technology for its own sake—and a good event can encourage them as I detail in “How to Design Events to Inspire Girls About STEM Careers,” my first article on this topic. However, girls also need practical information for career planning and for succeeding in the workplace. This comes down to a few things: understanding possible career paths, recognizing that women can and do “make it” in STEM fields, and learning from role models who can give helpful advice. Unfortunately, many well-intentioned events have more attention on “what we want to say” than on “what actually helps the girls at this stage of their life.”
“I have seen brilliant engineers go into classrooms to try to explain what they do, and have students do activities that resulted in further turning students off to the STEM disciplines,” said Dr. Karen Panetta, Dean for Graduate Education at Tufts University. “The discussion was not at the appropriate audience level and the person delivering the material couldn’t relate to students.”
Dr. Panetta is an IEEE Fellow, and has received a Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring from President Obama for her outreach work. The award “recognizes the crucial role that mentoring plays in the academic and personal development of students studying science and engineering” according to the White House.
Dr. Panetta also the founder of an Engineering Outreach Program called Nerd Girls. She told me about a Nerd Girls outreach they did for DigiGirlz, a Microsoft YouthSpark program. This program, according to Microsoft’s website, gives “middle and high school girls opportunities to learn about careers in technology, connect with Microsoft employees, and participate in hands-on computer and technology workshops.”).
Dr. Panetta said the event she was in involved in had 100 girls participate. It hosted different-abled students (those with Down Syndrome, autistsm, etc.) in addition to low-income students from inner cities. “We used the Tryengineering.org ‘Ship the Chip’ exercise,” she said. “It didn’t require any math or science—just imagination!”
According to its website, “TryEngineering is an initiative from the IEEE, the world’s largest technical professional organization for the advancement of technology. TryEngineering aims to empower educators to foster the next generation of technology innovators. [They] provide educators and students with resources, lesson plans, and activities that engage and inspire.”
TryEngineering’s “Ship the Chip” lesson, according to its website, focuses on “engineering package designs that meet the needs of safely shipping a product. Students work in teams of ‘engineers’ to design a package using standard materials that will safely ship a single chip through the mail to the school address.”
Dr. Karen Panetta (front, center) with students at a Nerd Girls outreach event at a Microsoft DigiGirlz camp. (Photo credit: Dr. Karen Panetta)
Show the STEM Career Path
A recurring theme I heard from female scientists and technologists while researching this article was, “I wish someone told me more about different STEM career paths.” So don’t assume that everyone knows the basics. In high school, Kaitlyn, one woman I spoke to for this article, attended a meeting during which the speaker discussed engineering majors. “I did not know what engineering was before this,” Kaitlyn said. “Even though I knew I wanted to work with computers since middle school, and I went to a great high school with money to burn, I didn’t know what engineering was.”
As another woman, a programmer, told me, “I wish there had been more explanation upfront about the various applications for your technical skills and all the interesting work that you can do as a software engineer.”
“A road map would’ve been so helpful,” an astrophysicist told me. She said it would have been particularly helpful had a flowchart included an activity that showed the degree and training needed for different careers. For example, “if you get an undergrad degree in science,” she said, “you can work as a lab technician. But generally, to have a job with the title ‘scientist,’ you need to get a PhD. Working in science usually means research whereas working in engineering or tech usually means an internship with a company.”
Keep Advice Age-Appropriate
What you discuss at any event is affected by the girls’ age. In grade school, students are more interested in cool technology than in career topics. One teacher, Kelly, advised that late middle school or particularly high school students value presentations that demystify broad categories and drill down to specific skills or careers. “For example, many students know that they want to be a ‘coder’ but their understanding of the field stops there,” Kelly said. “They don’t know that underneath that is…web development, and underneath that is…front end versus back end, and so on.”
Highlight related careers, including those that are considered liberal arts. “Women interested in truly techie positions, like coders, digital forensic consultants, white hat hackers, and developers, just scratch the surface of what is out there,” said Leeza Garber, a lawyer specializing in technology and cybersecurity issues and has participated in these events for girls. She suggested you talk about the breadth of career options available: Artificial Intelligence (AI) Researcher, Chief Information Officer (CIO), Chief Information Security Officer (CISO), Chief Technology Officer (CTO), cybersecurity attorney, Information Security (sometimes shortened to InfoSec) Consultant, and Project Manager.
Show Them the Money
Don’t be shy about talking about money, either. Give girls some idea of the financial remuneration of tech careers, advises Charlotte, a software engineer who previously taught middle school and high school students. “Advertise to the practical girls in the audience how early they can be living their best life; tech is such a high-salary career.”
She pointed out it’s possible to earn six figures while you’re in your 20s. “Show them some Glassdoor.com screenshots of tech job postings with salaries,” she suggests, “and don’t forget to add years of experience.”
Explain a Day in the Life
Depending on the audience, you can do a deep dive tying a hands-on activity to career possibilities. Dena Bauckman, Vice President of Product Management at cloud email security solutions provider Zix Corporation, suggested “a day in the life of an IT security professional.” This type of day would allow students to complete a simulation or demo of what a cyberattack looks like on the front lines.
These types of plans can help girls turn their mere aspirations into more concrete plans. “If you ask nearly all middle schoolers and most high schoolers, they’ll give you their aspiration but not their plan because they don’t yet have one,” said Kelly. Teachers can help but, because few have worked outside education, their career landscape may be as limited as the students. Which is why it’s useful, entertaining, and valuable to bring in role models and other outsiders.
“Giving them [the right] kind of language and framework early can help them better target their particular interests,” said Kelly. She said “I want to make games” is an aspiration. But a plan is, “I want to do three-dimensional [or 3D] modeling so I’m going to need to know about modeling, rigging, lighting, and texturing—and I can use [a free and open-source 3D creation suite like] Blender to start learning.”
Choose Relatable Role Models
The advice above applies to all students, but is particularly important to communities that are underrepresented in STEM fields. Students want to hear from successful people with whom they can identify. Girls need to know what it is like to be a woman in tech, which usually means they need to meet women who are in tech.
“Ensure there are role models—live ones to meet and hear about,” said Dr. Panetta. “Students respond to other older students who they can relate to. Students can also can better envision themselves following in the role model’s footsteps.”
Representation matters, says Leah McGowen-Hare, Vice President of Trailhead Evangelism at Salesforce. The event should include diverse presenters and teachers. “Having women and people of color present to a young female audience helps them understand they should not be limited by traditional gender and racial stereotypes. It is easier to achieve that which you can see.”
“You have no idea how many diversity and women-centered events I’ve attended that were led or hosted by mostly white men,” says Elizabeth, a community coordinator at a startup accelerator.
The role models shouldn’t only be up on stage. At She Code Connect events, “we encourage industry partners to have their women in tech at the event,” says Debi Pfitzenmaier, founding Executive Director of Youth Code Jam, a Texas-based nonprofit. “We structure our tables so each table has a good representation of industry, educators, and girls. We provide dialog starters at each table, and carve out time for what we call ‘Table Talk.’ Dialog starters focus on recruiting and retaining girls in computer science.”
“Middle school tends to be the age at which we lose girls in STEM at the highest rate, according to studies [I’ve read],” says Abbie, a scientist who’s been involved in STEM education events for K-12 students. “I usually try to provide role models at this age for as many types and varieties as possible.”
Don’t Pretend It’s Easy
Too often, the speakers talk about successes at these events. But technical women are almost more interested in how others cope with obstacles. “I really enjoy hearing women talk about their learning experiences at companies,” one woman confided to me. “How they made mistakes and overcame them. It helps me fear failure less.”
One rocket scientist I spoke to for this article said she was disappointed by a panel she attended that showcased three successful women. “None of them were willing to talk about where they had struggled,” she complained. “It is certainly important to see successful role models, but these three women were basically just telling us that it’s a piece of cake as long as you ‘want it enough.'”
All three panelists had a support system, such as for childcare. “That’s great for them, but that’s not generally the case for every woman in tech or STEM who wants to have a career,” the rocket scientist explained. She would have preferred to have heard from women who had dealt with relationship compromises, such as negotiating with a partner about whose career plan currently needs support. “There are systemic inequalities and struggles that women are facing which very few people talk about when talking about gender equality and that is, quite frankly, very tiring,” she said.
Similarly, speakers shouldn’t speak only of their personal journey. According to Abbie, the least helpful thing is to have someone say, “This is how I got to where I am.” She said everyone’s career path is unique and everyone’s personal hurdles are different. Sure, you want to get across the message that women can succeed, but part of the being a role model is that the audience can learn something from the experience. Otherwise, it’s not actually a model.
Another issue—a larger one—is how to prepare girls for STEM careers in the realms beyond technical know-how, such as how to develop general business skills and how to cope with sexism. But, alas, those are topics for another article.
Have any questions you need answered about encouraging girls in STEM? Join the [email protected] business community on LinkedIn, and you can ask vendors, other professionals like yourself, and PCMag’s editors.
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