Three quarters of middle-school aged girls express an interest in science. Yet less than one percent of high-school aged women select computer science as a college major.
Some of the country’s leading tech companies and organizations are leading an effort to keep young girls invested in their tech futures.
“We’re all familiar with the ingrained stereotypes, but what we wanted to explore were the subtle cues given to young women, cues that guide their interests,” Tami Erwin, an operations executive with Verizon said in December at a Paley Center event on how Hollywood can encourage young girls to follow science and technology careers.
When Justina Nixon-Saintil, the director of education for the Verizon Foundation, graduated with as mechanical engineer around two decades ago, she said she was the only African-American woman in her class to earn that degree. And there were only a handful of Caucasian women doing the same.
“If you fast forward and look at those stats, that has not changed significantly,” she said.
In February, U.S. News reported that women made up 28 percent of the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) workforce in 2010, according to the National Science Board’s annual “Science and Engineering Indicators” report.
“Over time a lot of people, whether it’s the teacher, the parent, or people in the community, they just tend to push girls toward fields that are not STEM fields,” Nixon-Saintil said.
Fifty-seven percent of girls say if they pursued a STEM career they would have to work harder than a man just to be taken seriously, The Girl Scout Research Institute found in a recent study of girls and STEM careers.
When she was in high school, Nicole Anderson, the executive director of philanthropy at AT&T, remembers feeling that math just wasn’t something girls were supposed to be good at, even though she went to an all-girls school.
Verizon’s “Inspire Her Mind” commercial is a visual punch-in-the-gut about how often parents discourage their daughters from pursuing science without even realizing it.
“As a mom who actually has a mechanical engineering degree and who also has a little girl, I tend to do what's in the commercial,” Nixon-Saintil said.
Not only that, but girls’ fear of failure and the fact that many science courses don’t teach all the ways various STEM careers actually improve the world keep female students from pursuing science careers, said Suzanne Harper, chief girl experience innovator for Girl Scouts.
Girl Scouts is trying to break that mold by promoting all-girl learning environments — so girls can feel empowered to learn without being relegated to traditional gender roles — and they can experiment without worrying about the results.
“When you’re in that non-formal education environment, you can fail and it doesn’t matter because you’re not getting graded on it. And that’s really important,” Harper said.
Research has shown kids realize they want to be scientists around third grade, Harper said. And in Girl Scouts, the largest demographic in the organization is in the Brownies denomination.
So right now in Girl Scouts, 700,000 girls are at that pivotal moment when they think they could be scientists, Harper said.
Girl Scouts and its various partners, including AT&T, work to instill a love of science in girls at a young age and develop that as girls mature. The two have developed a program called Imagine Your STEM Future where women in various STEM fields come to groups around the country and talk to girls about all the different science careers they can choose from — and the ways they can benefit the world if they do.
The program focuses on working with girls in low-income and underserved communities. One week, Harper said, a local Girl Scouts council hosted a food scientist to talk to the girls and one troop member became so enthralled she followed the scientist out to the parking lot to keep asking her questions about her career.
The idea that girls need to see tangible ways their work in science can benefit their communities has proved a popular one.
When Verizon launched the Verizon Innovative App Challenge a few years ago, not only did young women turn out in droves — around half of the winners in the first two years were girls — but girls in middle school and high school wanted to use their technological prowess to improve their communities.
The app challenge brought guest speakers, women in executive positions within Verizon to talk about what it means to be women in tech and engineering fields and at the end of the program, more than 90 percent of the girls involved said they were interested in joining STEM fields, Nixon-Saintil said.
The girls who participated in the program were nearing the end of their high school careers, so Verizon will know in the next two years whether the program helped them decide to stick with STEM classes, research the company intends to follow, Nixon-Saintil said.
“But we see very positive results from the program so far,” she added.
AT&T has also devised a number of programs that get girls up close and personal with women already working in STEM careers. AT&T employees talk with girls about their tech careers and the company donates money and offers scholarships to various groups, like Girls Who Code, to keep girls interested in STEM fields.
And then there’s AT&T’s nanodegree program, where, in 6-12 months, students receive the training they need to join the tech workforce. The only prerequisite is that they know how to do algebra.
The company then offers internships to a number of the program’s graduates, Anderson said.
"We need more girls and women to get involved in STEM." Anderson said. "There just has to be a heightened awareness of showing people folks who look like them and talk like them that these careers exist. It just takes all of us shouting on the topic."
Abby Rogers is a feminist who is completely content being a crazy cat lady. She reads everything, but only in real book form — no e-readers thank you very much.