Three Ways to Build the Next Generation of Women in STEM

Three Ways to Build the Next Generation of Women in STEM

Originally posted on Jabil’s Blog

By April Butterfield, VP of Technology, Jabil

april butterfieldGrowing up, I had an insatiable curiosity about the world. I wanted to know how things worked. More than that, I wanted to figure it out for myself. As a child, I was constantly picking up tools and taking things apart, often breaking them to figure out how and why things worked.

There were times – like when my siblings and I deconstructed our small, wooden playset – that my parents were less-than-thrilled about this curiosity. But I was never discouraged from asking questions, hunting for answers and working with my hands.

I didn’t know then that one day I would have a passion for women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). But now, one of my missions is to encourage more women to fearlessly pursue their interests in these and any areas that they desire.

STEM is a commonly used term to sum up science fields, although some organizations have also started referring to STEM2D, which stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics, Manufacturing and Design. Sadly, all of these fields are lacking in female representation. Just to give you a picture, here are some sobering statistics about women in STEM:

Countless studies have shown that workplace diversity makes companies stronger. But the lack of women in STEM is not only a diversity problem – it’s a labor force problem. As our world becomes increasingly digital, we need a greater number of workers who are knowledgeable in technology and science fields.

Why Aren’t There More Women in STEM Fields?

Why there is such a low percentage of women in STEM is not a simple question with a straightforward answer. Some may have been actively discouraged, some may have been tacitly discouraged, some may simply not be interested. But this is an important question to pose in order to adequately address concerns. Here are some common factors that discourage girls from pursuing STEM:

Women Are More Likely to be Discouraged at a Young Age

The foundation of the kind of skills and intelligence starts at an early age, and boys are often pushed toward activities that will develop their cognitive abilities toward STEM fields. Toys that encourage creating and working with your hands—such as Legos or building blocks (often classified as “boy toys”)—encourage spatial intelligence, a necessary skill for STEM, while playing with dolls or dress-up (traditional girl activities) tend to encourage language-based learning.

Already, I’ve seen encouraging changes in the way that my family and friends with younger children approach STEM. There are resources available now that were not available when my children were growing up. Kids are starting activities like constructing and programming robots at a much younger age than they were, sometimes as young as preschool. There are also more STEM-related summer and after-school programs available.

But there is another way that girls can be tacitly discouraged from STEM: teachers and mentors often convey – unconsciously – to young girls that they cannot excel in STEM-related subjects as well as boys can.

Personally, I have always had a community of mentors and teachers that helped spur me toward my decision to pursue STEM. My dad was an engineer who worked on the Apollo space programs, and watching him and his coworkers apply their knowledge to do something that had never been done before was very impactful. As I grew, I had numerous teachers in both math and science who had a lot of influence in my leaning toward the sciences as opposed to liberal arts. But this isn’t the case for everybody.

For example, John Sheehan, an engineer at Microsoft, noticed that his daughter’s math teachers regularly praised boys’ academic skills, but the girls’ less often. Even though she’s always been gifted at math, he’s made it a priority to encourage her while she’s doing homework.

“She’d say, ‘Oh, this math is hard,’ and I’d say, ‘Yeah, it’s hard for everybody – but you can do it,’” he remembered. “There was this sort of underlying feeling society was telling her that boys are better at math. It made her think when she had trouble with a particular topic, it might have something to do with the fact that she was a girl. My job as a parent was to dispel that belief.”

Conscious or not, it makes a difference when there are cultural biases. It can cause self-selection to happen at an early age.

There Are Stigmas Around Many STEM Fields

Often, when people think of engineering, they imagine a man in coveralls and steel-toed boots, wiping his hands on a grease-coated handkerchief. The general public tends to perceive certain fields of engineering as “dirty” work, which may discourage them girls and women from pursuing fields like mechanical engineering. Instead, women are veering more toward social or environmental sciences.

This may also be related to a prevailing idea that they can make a larger difference to the community – and world – through these sciences as opposed to other fields. According to the Harvard Business Review, every generation wants to feel that their job is meaningful, but each has a slightly different idea of what that means. For example, baby boomers are more likely to define a meaningful job as one that allows them to achieve their personal goals while helping others achieve theirs. Millennials, on the other hand, are more likely to characterize a meaningful job as a “job of service,” one that directly benefits others and the community.

The connection between social and environmental sciences and their impact on people and the community is more obvious and immediate. Especially for millennials, fighting for social justice and protecting the environment are very important issues. If we can more clearly convey how other fields can assist those same issues, we may see a larger surge in of women in fields like computer science, engineering and manufacturing.

Women Are Concerned about Work/Life Balance

The struggle of maintaining a “work/life balance” has been an issue for as long as people have been entering the workforce. This is not a “women’s” issue, per se – men also need to figure out how to properly prioritize their personal and work lives – nor is it specific to STEM fields, but it is a prominent concern for many people when considering a career.

As a mother of three, I understand this struggle. I don’t think of it as a “work/life balance” as much as a “work/life fusion.” There are times in this industry when something urgently needs to be done and you don’t have the luxury to say, “I can’t do that now.” There were times when I would take my kids to the office with me or work from home. For me, it isn’t so much a balancing act as it is about being able to switch priorities at various moments, ensuring that I have time for my children and my family but also recognizing that are times when I needed to keep my head down and get my work done.

There’s nothing shameful about that. In fact, I think it’s important that children see their parents working hard at something they are truly passionate about. Even though none of my kids went into engineering, I can see them approach their chosen fields with the same work ethic their father and I have.

In a global economy, it is a fact proved many times over that a diverse and inclusive employee base has a competitive advantage. But this isn’t just a corporate tactic designed to nurture future talent; mentoring and encouraging young minds is a social responsibility and a sincere privilege. So, what actions can individuals and companies take to encourage girls’ curiosity in STEM?

1. Partner with the Community

Most girls lose interest in STEM during their teenage years; some studies identify age 15 as a significant drop-off point. We need to be reaching girls before they start losing interest. Companies can partner with local schools and other organizations and institutions to speak to girls about the opportunities in STEM.

Over the years, I’ve worked with my Jabil team to create some fun and exciting curriculum for the Girl Scouts of West Central Florida’s “POWER IT UP” Powered by Jabil summer camp. We’ve shown girls between the ages 9 and 13 the creative side of STEM through 3D printing activities, solar power, windmill projects and coding.

As I mentioned earlier, hands-on projects are crucial to developing STEM-related skills and intelligence. When we work with kids, we often bring kits with electronics that the girls can click together to make circuits. It’s a great way for the kids to be able to create a solution for something physical with these easy-to-use, snap-together blocks. We’ve also done projects for them to generate an alternative energy and had some physical representations of optics and how optics works. They’re just simple projects and representations, but it really helps them understand these scientific principles and removes some of the hesitancy about understanding “hard” concepts. As the concepts become more real, so does the idea that they can meaningfully participate in these areas and it gets them excited about doing it.

Allowing girls to do hands-on STEM activities helps them to see the value in STEM careers. Many young people – men and women – are increasingly citing the ability to make a difference as a driving force in choosing a career path. Exposing younger children to a variety of fields and helping them to see the potential impact on the world through efforts in those fields can only be beneficial as we look to create tomorrow’s workforce.  This helps them picture themselves in these professional roles someday.

It’s also important to just talk to the kids and make sure they know what opportunities are available to them. I’ve also had the privilege of mentoring at the American Heart Association’s 2018 Girls Go Red for STEM event, where 100 middle school-aged girls from underserved neighborhoods were invited to a one-day education event to get hands-on exposure to STEM. I was honored to have the chance to talk with these bright, young women about the career possibilities out there waiting for them.

2. Establish Visible Role Models

One way to encourage female interest is by featuring women who are in STEM2D or have made valuable contributions to STEM2D. According to a study conducted by Microsoft, girls are far more likely to feel empowered in STEM when they know a woman in a STEM profession.

LEGO has taken steps to highlight the achievements of women in STEM, rolling out a new set that honors four influential women in NASA: astronomer Nancy Grace Roman, computer scientist Margaret Hamilton and astronauts Sally Ride and Mae Jemison.

But this isn’t only applicable to girls; career women need female leaders and mentors to look up to as well. That is why Women in Manufacturing launched the STEP Ahead awards, an annual competition honoring the best of female leaders in the manufacturing industry. To date, this program has recognized more than 900 women, including several Jabil leaders.

3. Just Listen

Women face additional challenges once in the engineering workforce, both self-inflicted and within the work environment. Specifically, these include situations where women may not speak up as readily as their male counterparts. They may perceive an exclusion attitude or approach where one may not be intended but is a result of the imbalance in the male/female ratio of a group. Women also have an approach to the group dynamic that is different and may not be well understood, so they may be questioned more than men when presenting information. I have seen through the years that the more diverse a group is – including other areas of diversity, such as age, race and background – the less these are areas of challenge.

But this puts some onus on women, too. We need to speak up. In fact, if I were to give one piece of advice to my younger self, it would be to be bolder in voicing my thoughts. Early in my career I was reticent to offer an opinion until I had all the data. Over time, I have found that speaking up earlier is necessary to help shape direction and encourage open dialogue.

In STEM, I found a career where I am free to unleash my natural curiosity and offer creative solutions to problems. Particularly at Jabil, we work with companies across so many markets and teams that are developing next-generation products that there are always opportunities to learn and contribute to solutions. Without question this is a field for people who are intellectually curious.

Women have made remarkable strides over the past few decades; we are making history and smashing glass ceilings in all areas of work and life. We need to keep that momentum going strong. We need to encourage girls to speak up, to ask questions, to believe that by seeking the answers to the mysteries around them, they can become the problem-solvers of tomorrow.

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