There's long been a scarcity of women in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields, particularly in the United States. But in an increasingly tech-connected global society, programs that promote female STEM literacy alongside more traditional courses—encouraging girls to equate scientific discovery with learning of any kind, including reading and writing—must often take place outside traditional educational venues.
Although women constitute more than half the population, only 26 percent of college-educated women with STEM degrees go on to hold jobs in that field, and women hold only 24 percent of STEM jobs in total, according to National Census data. As more girls grow up in a digital age, and greater awareness exposes society’s gender inequities, a rising tide of women and girls are programming their way into the future.
Jean MacDonald, a Portland-based software developer and founder of App Camp for Girls, recalls the first time she attended Apple’s annual Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC), one of more than 5,000 attendees. While in a session of approximately 1,000 participants, she scanned the room. “From where I was sitting, I couldn’t see another woman,” she says. “I was shocked.”
In an attempt to generate more STEM interest from girls, MacDonald drew on her background as a teacher at a rock ’n’ roll summer camp in Portland, Oregon, to create App Camp for Girls. “Our mission is to offer this fun, educational program for girls in an accessible and accepting environment, with the goal that there will be gender equality in software development,” she says.
At App Camp, the girls work in teams of four with a female mentor. They are given an iPod touch to use for the week and brainstorm with their teams. At the end of the week, the girls present their apps to a panel of female entrepreneurs in a pitch session.
“I thought if we could show girls that it’s actually a lot of fun to make software, and not beyond their abilities, that by the end of a week of camp they could have something tangible to show off."
Boys might still dominate technology classes, but, as MacDonald points out, “there are a lot of smart girls out there interested in math and science.”
One such girl found herself surprised to enjoy computer science classes at her California high school. Makena McElroy, a high school junior, assumed she would focus on theater and public health in college. After taking an advanced placement computer science class, though, she’s reconsidering her college goals. “I would like to double-major in computer science,” she says.
McElroy is one of only two girls in her computer science class. “I like solving problems that seem really intricate,” she says. “It’s a thrill when you actually figure it out for yourself.”
But she has struggled with being the minority gender. “When I’m in class with all these boys I feel that there’s stuff I don’t know about the computer parts and servers because people don’t teach girls about computers. There’s this culture of ‘brogrammers’ who know everything about computers and I don’t feel connected to that, though I love developing.”
These scenarios don’t surprise Nilanjana Dasgupta, a professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, given her expertise on gender equity in the sciences. She points out that from an early age, boys are given more opportunities to tinker with objects in ways that lead naturally to an affinity for STEM subjects. “The typical finding in studies is that mothers often interpret high performance in math in their sons as indication of talent, but in their daughters as working very hard, interpreted as you mustn’t be as good,” she says. She adds that a parent’s confidence in a child’s abilities is a better indicator of the child’s later-in-life success than the child’s own actual strengths. In other words: Children internalize their parents’ beliefs about their skills, and this stretches into adulthood.
A group of women in Iowa City, Iowa, are working hard to overcome these ingrained notions and teaching themselves technology skills to stay current and competitive. More than two years ago, Andrea Flemming, a librarian and technology consultant, joined forces with friends to start a Meetup group called Iowa Tech Chicks. Each monthly meeting showcases a different presenter focusing on a specific skill. The group also takes field trips to tech companies and sponsors a Girls Tech Career Day for girls in grades 5-8. “You just can’t avoid technology no matter what field you’re in now,” Flemming says.
Since the group’s inception, its diverse collection of women, many of them small business owners, have taught one another a variety of skills and computer programs, from Python, which helps simplify programming languages, to Arduino, a programmable software that can control things like a sprinkler system, to Git—which allows the installation of small circuits like those that Flemming is attempting to sew into materials.
What makes the Tech Chicks’ group so successful, Flemming says, is “having hands-on concrete projects. We might say, ‘Hey, you draw or sew, so here’s a way to use Google SketchUp to turn a drawing you did into a tech skill that’s in demand.’ You can create some magic and snowball from there. We make it not so intimidating.”
Female STEM literacy has wider implications than just self-improvement. Becoming tech literate makes women more employable and is good for the economy. A report from the National Center for Women & Information Technology states that tech companies with more women on their management teams have a 34 percent greater return on investment, and women in STEM jobs make on average 33 percent more than their non-STEM counterparts.
Dasgupta suggests that the answer to getting girls more excited in STEM is not only to start their education in the field as early as possible, but also to broaden tech literacy to other areas—for example, combining computing and the visual arts. She also emphasizes the importance of promoting an attitude of mastery versus talent, for both girls and boys, and treating STEM subjects as inherently achievable to anyone through discipline.
For adults who are trying to dip their toes in the tech waters, Flemming says, “Don’t be afraid to ask questions. That is one of the skills of being in any STEM field: to be constantly curious.”