President Obama recently announced his Computer Science for All initiative to fund computer science training programs in K-12 public schools. But before assessing the need at a national level, entrepreneurs and tech companies have been assessing and advocating for the need for more STEM education on their own; because as we all know...nothing happens without the innovators making it happen. Funding is great, but it has to be coupled with influencers who are advocating and championing change and quite literally getting kids to "fall in love" with science, engineering, technology and math.
One such influencer, fashion icon Rebecca Minkoff, has become someone I greatly admire in terms of really "getting" the disconnect between what makes STEM appealing to millennials, particularly girls. Not only is she acknowledged as one of the most forward-thinking leaders in fashion when it comes to emerging technologies (hello, smart dressing rooms), last year she and U.N. Women announced a partnership built around their shared commitment to gender equality by creating new opportunities for women in tech.
In a recent conversation I had with her, Minkoff aptly points out: "The future of fashion depends on STEM, whether in product innovation, wearables, or data analytics and e-commerce. There are tons of women working in STEM now who can help to expose others to what they do."
So how do we get girls to fall in love with STEM at an early age? Does age even matter? Caroline Ghosn, Co-Founder and CEO of millennial professional learning network Levo, comments, "Every age is an age of influence. We focus on millennials because it's the largest generation currently in the workforce. We cannot solve the STEM gender gap without solving it for millennials. They're our first digital natives and they're willing to learn quickly."
Furthermore, every company will someday be a technology company, and the way you attract female talent in a male-dominated environment is by shedding light on the women that already occupy that space. That taken into account, here are five impactful ways to get girls to fall in love with STEM.
#1 - Embrace the power of storytelling. Instead of pulling the weeds of why there's a gender gap in STEM roles to begin with, let's water the flowers that are already there: give girls real-life examples of women who are already succeeding in STEM roles so they can better envision pathways of their own. Ghosn comments, "It can be very challenging to be what you can't see. Think about it in the physical world. You walk into a room and no one looks like you. Can you relate to them? Do you feel welcome? Let's stop talking about how men dominate the technology industry and instead focus on the women who are killing it."
Through Levo League's Office Hours videos, career-advice interviews, and profiles outlining women who are succeeding in STEM roles, the platform creates mentorship opportunities for young women that they may not have had access to otherwise.
#2 - Demonstrate how STEM aligns with hobbies girls are already into. Ayah Bdeir, Founder and CEO of littleBits electronic building blocks, sought out to create a gender-neutral toy meant to unleash creativity and instill a love for STEM through the cycle of inventing. "We get girls to fall in love with STEM by showing them how it fits in with hobbies they're already in love with. STEM doesn't have to be this thing that you do. It can exist in any profession, hobby, or activity you like, whether robotics, arts-and-crafts, fashion, or social activities."
As a result, she sees girls learning to code by designing interactive games, inventing adaptive keyboards, and solving real-world problems via their littleBits creations.
#3 - Encourage the exploration of extra-curricular learning settings. In addition to President Obama's Computer Science For All initiative, The White House Council of Women and Girls has compiled resources for women in in tech, setting the tone for advocacy and advancement in STEM education. But until coding is a regular part of public-school curriculums, we can help the cause by encouraging the exploration of other educational resources like Udemy (I recently started a Neuroscience course!), or General Assembly, all of which are home to a range of one-off and extended courses in data science, computer programming, user experience design, and more.
Encouraging girls and young women to take initiative in finding learning opportunities of their own can arm them with technological skills that will put them ahead of the game, and fill the STEM education gap now.
#4 - Don't focus on one particular age of influence. Although there may be a an age when instilling a love for STEM is key, women of all ages benefit from seeing how science, technology, engineering, and math fit into their existing roles or future careers. Bdeir adds, "Studies show that the age of 8 is when girls' interest in STEM starts dropping dramatically."
But there are still many open windows for showing women how they can benefit from adding STEM tasks to their tool belts regardless of age. Think about the power of a copywriter with design skills, a teacher who can code a website for a student group, or a seasoned chef capable of teaching her staff how to cash out at the end of the night when the the power goes out. There's power in STEM education during every phase of our careers and lives.
#5 - If you're a woman in STEM, play your part. From participating in a hackathon, speaking on a panel about women in technology, mentoring a local student, or placing an intern, there are countless ways to get involved today. Rebecca Minkoff took part in an AdWeek panel where she helped to shed a light on the struggles related to female leadership; but you don't have to be famous to have an impact! Start by writing a Medium article about what you do in STEM and share the heck out of it. Send it to a university or let it act as your own open-call for taking on a mentee.
The moral of the story?
We have to encourage girls to engage with technology regardless of their career path, and there are a million ways to go about it. The bottom-line way to get girls to fall in love with STEM is by highlighting how it touches every part of their worlds.