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Focus on the Workforce: Engineering the Future for Women in Science

Anna Maria Chávez

Anna Maria Chávez
CEO, Girl Scouts of the USA 

The development of the silicon microchip gave rise to our current digital age, and the global economy has been heavily dependent on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) ever since. Over the past 10 years, STEM jobs grew three times faster than non-STEM jobs, and they are projected to continue to grow by 17% through 2018, compared to 9.8% for all other occupations.

While STEM is growing by leaps and bounds, so is women’s involvement in the workforce. Today, 48% of the country’s workforce is comprised of women—a figure projected to grow even larger in the decades to come, as more than half of today’s college and masters level graduates are female.

With women poised to shape our economic future, and given the significance of STEM in today’s world, it’s more important than ever that we are preparing girls and young women with the skills they will need for a future in STEM.

At the Girl Scouts, we have been on the cutting edge of girl leadership development for over 100 years, helping girls acquire the skills they need to lead their world. As STEM careers present new opportunities for the future, we set out to learn more about how girls feel about subjects like science and math, and how we could create a unique program tailored to their need and interests.

Our Girl Scout Research Institute conducted an in-depth study about girls’ attitudes towards STEM called Generation STEM: What Girls Say about Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. The study found that teenage girls love STEM. Some 74% of high school girls across the country are interested in STEM-related subjects.

The Flying Monkeys, a Girl Scout troop from  Ames, Iowa, helped designed and manufacture a prosthetic hand for a three-year-old from China.

This runs counter to some of the negative stereotypes that persist about girls and their interests in things scientific or mathematical. Yet when you delve deeper into the numbers, you realize that although interest in STEM is high, few girls consider it their number one career choice. In fact, STEM careers don’t crack the top tier of career choices for young women.

There are several reasons for this. Girls are acutely aware of the gender barriers—57% say that if they went into a STEM field, they’d have to work harder than a man just to be taken seriously. The classroom is where girls receive the bulk of their exposure to STEM.

Unfortunately, we know that the classroom can also be an intimidating place, where girls sometimes succumb to peer pressures or stereotypes about girls in STEM. In fact, our study found that 47% of girls say they would feel uncomfortable being the only girl in a school group focused on STEM.

The result is while record numbers of girls are expressing interest, too few are considering a STEM field for a career—and that’s a problem for everyone who cares about the future of our economy and our world. In order to create gender balance in the STEM workforce and foster the innovative thinking we will need to power our future, we need to actively encourage girls to pursue their interests and abilities in STEM.

Girl Scouting provides an out-of-school, all-girl environment where girls can be themselves—where they are uninhibited by the social pressures they can face in a formal, mixed-gender classroom environment—and where they are free to experiment and explore. 

And so, using what we learned from our Generation STEM study, and our experience in girl leadership development, we have created focused programming around STEM fields for girls of all ages. By engaging in these STEM-related Journeys and earning National Proficiency Badges, girls explore a variety of STEM-related subjects.

We know that girls are more interested in STEM careers when they know how their work can help others. We emphasize learning by doing and a cooperative learning environment because we know that, particularly with STEM, youth need to be hands-on, active learners.

In general, girls prefer a collaborative leadership style, rather than the traditional, top-down, “command and control” approach. The cooperative learning process gives girls the opportunity to develop leadership and STEM skills in a way that feels comfortable and natural for them.

The Flying Monkeys
Does the Girl Scout approach work? A few years ago a beautiful three-year-old girl from China was adopted by an American family in Georgia. This little girl was born without fingers on one of her hands, and her new family decided they wanted to get her help. They took to the internet, where they spoke to researchers, doctors, and medical supply companies. They found that what they were looking for was simply not on market—they wanted a prosthetic hand for a three-year-old.

Most companies didn’t want to make that investment, because the girl would grow, of course, and the hand would have to be constantly recalibrated until she became an adult. Finally, they found a special partner—the Flying Monkeys, a Girl Scout Troop from Ames, Iowa, willing to invest their time, energy and resources to try and do what pharmaceutical companies wouldn’t.

They worked tirelessly, doing research, speaking to professionals, collecting their supplies and successfully manufacturing a working prosthetic hand for the girl, and then going on to compete in a global robotics competition, which they won. They claimed a $20,000 prize, with which they are now working to patent their device—which they lovingly named “Bob 1.”

When I think about the Flying Monkeys, I’m in awe. This is what can happen when we unlock the power of girls—when we give them the platform, the encouragement, and the skills they need to achieve.

So how can we encourage STEM development among girls?

First, we must focus on elementary and middle school girls. Activating their interests and encouraging their pursuits when they are young helps build confidence and diminishes the effect of later peer pressures.

Second, we must encourage partnerships with out-of-school and summer programs. Taking STEM education out of the classroom and into the real world is so important for girls.

Third, we must expose girls to more female role models in the STEM fields.

We need adult involvement: parents, fathers especially, must encourage their daughters not to opt out of STEM careers just because they are girls. Instead, nurture and encourage their development in these fields, and create an atmosphere where that interest is normal and expected.

And finally, we must continue evaluating national programs and partnerships to learn what works and what doesn’t when it comes to girls and STEM.

The message is clear: STEM is the future, and so are girls.

When girls engage, like the Flying Monkeys did, they have the capacity to change the world. It is so important that we are making this crucial investment in girls in STEM.

To do so is to invest in the future of our economy, our country, and our world. ME

This article was first published in the June 2014 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine. Click here for PDF.

Published Date : 6/1/2014

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