New research by Microsoft offers insights into how more girls can be encouraged and supported in pursuing STEM careers.
The World Economic Forum reports that by 2020, for every digital job created, four traditional jobs will be displaced for a man – but 20 will be displaced for a woman, making it critical to keep young girls interested and staying in these career paths.STEM is creative, challenging, and it is what future innovation is built on Click To Tweet
Following International Women’s Day, Microsoft unveiled the results of a survey amongst women and girls which reveals some interesting facts about why we still see such gender inequality of representation in STEM fields, and suggesting ways to tackle these problems.Encouragement from teachers, parents, and mentors is a crucial factor in attracting and retaining female talent to STEM careers Click To Tweet
For example, while 72% of girls surveyed say it is important for them to have a job that directly helps the world and 91% describe themselves as creative, only 60% understand how STEM subjects are relevant for their lives and the types of jobs and things they could do with STEM knowledge. When they do learn about real-world STEM jobs and accomplishments, their perception of the creativity and positive impact of STEM double in some cases.The World Economic Forum reports that by 2020, for every digital job created, four traditional jobs will be displaced for a man – but 20 will be displaced for a woman Click To Tweet
As one high-school student put it: “The word ‘engineer,’ it’s misunderstood, I think to most people it sounds like more of a masculine-based job.”
Kiki Wolfkill, Studio Head for Halo Transmedia says knowledge of technology is something that can open many opportunities for women, and it is important that they understand that STEM subjects are fundamentally creative.
“It took me longer than it should have to realize that everyone telling me that because I was creative that I wasn’t cut out for math or science was WRONG. Creativity and STEM are not mutually exclusive and in fact, so much better together. There are so many forces at work as girls are learning their way and it’s easy to get discouraged or to lose confidence. STEM is creative, challenging, and it is what innovation for the future is built on. STEM is not one thing – it is the ability to create/use/evolve technology to build a better world and it needs diverse voices and backgrounds – that has to be encouraged and nurtured.”
Yet the study identifies some of the common stumbling blocks that such women who achieved successful STEM careers had to overcome along the way:
Nearly half (49%) of women currently working in STEM say that they have faced stereotypes in the field and 57% of women in technology fields specifically say they have faced stereotypes as a woman, as Shannon Loftis, General Manager of Publishing, Xbox recalls:
“I was once accused of cheating by a professor who just could not believe I had grasped the subject matter of an advanced calculus course. There have been many setbacks, both early and late, and regardless of the cause, I’ve always found it worthwhile to work around, plow through, and keep on. I wish I had more awareness of my female predecessors prior to entering college. I feel like I stumbled into the field. I want to share what I’ve learned so women can aim at what I’ve had (and then aim higher, and higher). Early access to STEM thinking, to acquiring fluency in technology and math, opens the mind and the path to whatever comes next.”
Another finding that emerges is how the perception that STEM careers not a natural fit for women builds up over time. Only 31 percent middle school girls believe that jobs requiring coding and programming are “not for them” but by the time they get to high school that number jumps to 40%, and 58% college women count themselves out of these jobs.The perception that STEM careers not a natural fit for women builds up over time. Click To Tweet
To counter this, it is important to provide girls with activities to connect their interests with STEM subjects. The hands-on experience girls get in STEM clubs and activities stokes their interest: 75% of girls who participate in STEM clubs/activities understand the types of jobs and things they could do with STEM knowledge (compared to 53% who do not participate in such activities). One 8th grader told the study:
“I want a teacher who wants to be there and has new ideas about how to take on life, especially for us girls because we feel cornered by all the pressure to make money and take care of family and friends. My tests say I’m a good engineer and I wish I knew what that looked like in real life. I want to see women in STEM careers on posters in the hall, in our history and science texts, and visit our classes.”
Encouragement from teachers, parents, and mentors is also a crucial factor in attracting and retaining female talent to STEM careers. 65% of middle school girls who are encouraged by a parent say they’re likely to study computer science in high school, compared to 36% who haven’t been encouraged by either parent. 61% of girls who know a women in a STEM profession feel powerful when doing STEM, compared to 44% who don’t know a woman in STEM, yet only 36% of girls know a woman in a STEM profession.
“It's critical to mentor girls from classroom to the boardroom,” agrees Toni Townes-Whitley, Corporate Vice President of Industry for Microsoft. ”We need to ensure that young women with STEM backgrounds participate in interdisciplinary functions from design/build to consult/implementation processes in the tech industry and as elements of digital transformation in all other industries. The best part of working in a STEM field – for me – is the ability to envision, experience and engage in the transformation of how businesses operate, people work and live, and societal issues get addressed with technology.”
Bonnie Ross, Head of 343 Studios (which makes the Halo games) agrees that it is difficult for women to stick with pursuing a career in STEM when there isn’t a large support group of other women in class.
“It can be stressful, intimidating and lonely. It can also be difficult to see the connection of CS or engineering degrees to what you’re passionate about. That being said, I fundamentally believe in the next 5-10 years, that regardless of job function (writing, film, marketing, etc.), some form of technical background will be needed or desired for the job candidate. I believe candidates that have any technical experience, will get the nod over those that don’t. I think we need to mentor young girls and women to help show them what they can achieve with technology---not what technology is, but what they can create with technology.”
Helen Chiang, General Manager of Minecraft also recalls how her parents’ support helped her stay the course:
“It’s incredibly hard to be an outlier, especially during the teenage years, and learning in a community of peers that had similar interests kept me from leaving STEM early because it wasn’t considered popular in my regular high school. Where I grew up, it wasn’t popular for girls to be smart or interested in challenging subjects within STEM. I went through a period of wondering whether I should pretend to not understand subjects or dumb myself down so that I would be liked. I have to credit my parents, who reinforced in me from an early age that it’s much more important to always be curious, always be learning, and continue to challenge yourself -- than to want to be liked. Friends and popularity come and fade, but what’s in your brain should stay with you a lifetime.”
Some of the report’s key recommendations include:
- Supporting extracurricular activities that teach girls how to create and build confidence through STEM
- Emphasizing the link between STEM and creativity
- Showing girls and young women that there are real-world, world-changing jobs in STEM and computer science.
- Ensuring teachers interact with girls as much as boys and in qualitatively similar ways
- Encouraging parents, teachers and other parental figures in a girl’s life to support and foster interest in STEM
- Showing how interest in STEM and computer science can lead to success in school and in a career.
- Providing positive role models and mentors in STEM careers
Alice Bonasio is a VR Consultant and Tech Trends’ Editor in Chief. She also regularly writes for Fast Company, Ars Technica, Quartz, Wired and others. Connect with her on LinkedIn and follow @alicebonasio on Twitter