Girls in STEM Programs: Bridging the Skills Gap

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Americans are divided on many subjects, but on one issue they stand nearly united: the skills gap, particularly in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. When asked if finding candidates with the required skills is a challenge, 84% of companies recently told the American Society for Training and Development they’re facing a skills gap. An incredible 93% of employers told tech industry groupCompTIA the same thing about IT employees. And the retirement of the Baby Boomers is only set to worsen the problem.

Evidence for the shortage of women in STEM fields is just as stark. While women are thriving on college campuses in general, they still received just 17.9% of undergraduate computer science degrees and 18.1% of engineering degrees, according to the Girls Collaborative Project. This obviously affects their professional choices. Women make up just 13% of employees in engineering fields and 26% in computer and mathematical sciences.

Putting Two and Two Together

Take these two facts and put them together and what do you get? A compelling case for getting more women interested in and studying STEM to help close the skills gap.

“Giving half the world a chance to become makers, inventors, scientists and leaders will create legions of new faces in jobs that are currently dominated by men. Imagine an engineering or business department of a Fortune 500 company and imagine that the room is 50% female, 50% male,” says Angie Chang, director of development at Hackbright Academy, a software engineering training program for women.

This isn’t simply an issue of fairness or helping half of humanity reach their full potential. Getting more girls in STEM fields makes solid business sense.

“The U.S. Labor Dept estimates by the year 2020 there will be 1.4 million computing related STEM careers available and technology remains the fastest growing occupation for US workers. However, US colleges are only graduating enough computer science engineers to fill 30% of these future jobs. Increasing the STEM pipeline with women and students of color will support the economic viability of US companies,” argues Kimberly Bryant, founder of Black Girls CODE, an organization dedicated to introducing girls of color to programing.

President Obama agrees. “Jump-starting girls’ interest in STEM subjects, boosting the percentage of scientists and engineers who are women – which rested at a mere 24% in 2009 – and giving greater prominence to strong role models is not just the right thing to do, but the smart thing to do,” the White House has declared in a statement.

Taking Action

So what can we do to help encourage more girls into STEM? Many experts believe early intervention is the key. Once girls reach college (or even, perhaps, high school) boys have often pulled ahead and stereotypes that say tech isn’t an attractive option for girls begin to harden. Bryant advocates exposing girls to tech in elementary school. “Once girls reach middle school a shift begins in their self concept and ideas related to career paths. We have to lure them into the field early enough to create a level of confidence in technology creation that will sustain their interest through high school and into college,” she says.

Chang agrees, suggesting change can come from something as simple as a little girl unwrapping a different sort of birthday present. Swap some of those pink dolls and play ovens for science of engineering toys, she suggests.

Tech could also be taught differently. Tracey Welson-Rossman, founder TechGirlz, a tech-oriented camp for girls advocates, “creating more girls only programs which base their curriculum on what motivates girls to be interested in technology. Girls and boys connect differently to tech.” Highlighting technology as a way to solve problems rather than an abstract mind puzzle may help, suggested Girl Develop It co-founder Vanessa Hurst in this video.

“If someone had told me that software is really about humanity, that it’s really about helping people by using computer technology, it would have changed my outlook a lot earlier,” she says.

The White House is advocating increased mentoring, a high profile for female role models in tech careers, greater work-life flexibility in these fields and innovative education programs to hook girls on technology.

What do you think is needed to get more girls into STEM fields?

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