I am a very strong proponent of inspiring more girls to choose S.T.E.M. (science, technology, engineering and math) careers. My reasons are many, including the financial implications that arise for girls who choose to move in this direction, as well as the vast benefits the world would realize by adding a "female" set of eyes to any mix. To say that we are currently "lacking" the benefit is an understatement.
I am not alone in my opinion, either. Women like Sheryl Sandberg, Marissa Mayer and Ursula Burns haven't made a secret of their feelings in this matter. And although I know that many women my age and older are intently listening to these messages, I am not so sure that those who really need to hear them -- girls eleven years and older at the latest -- are doing so to make any real meaningful difference in the number of girls who choose S.T.E.M. careers going forward.
The barriers we have to overcome are plentiful: the lack of confidence and evidential support at home and in our schools despite girls' inarguable talents and skills; the persistence of limited role models and outdated stereotypes; the lack of a thorough understanding of what a S.T.E.M. education actually means on both large and small scales; the pursuit of more obvious, familiar or glamorous careers that tap into an "acceptability" level that girls still abide by; and countless other reasons continue to stand between girls and S.T.E.M., making it that much more difficult to truly get the ball rolling in this direction. And yet, it is imperative that we do.
All that being said, we fail to recognize another thing erroneously overlooked by so many of the well-intentioned supporters of S.T.E.M. for girls. The conversations we are having and all the campaigns we are waging to convince girls of the merits of S.T.E.M. careers mistakenly disregard the very information that is required to increase the interest of girls in S.T.E.M. We, ourselves, continue to speak "boy" when it is "girl" that we need to begin speaking -- that is, if we ever hope to make headway in this conversation.
To begin with, we need to focus our efforts on cultivating girls into S.T.E.M. and not cultivating S.T.E.M. into girls -- since they are, in fact, girls first and always will be. Additionally, they are "young" girls, so using the obvious interests and realities that entice females of this age will increase the success of our outcome in helping these girls realize what they are actually getting themselves into when they choose S.T.E.M. careers (not always obvious but very enticing as long as "reality" is appropriately conveyed).
For instance, did one ever stop to think that nary a lipstick has ever graced a woman's lips whose color hadn't been mixed by a chemist? To that same point, no fabulous feline would find herself on any cat walk if a bit of math hadn't come into the equation. Both these scenarios speak to girls, but have you ever seen them combined with a commercial espousing the virtues of S.T.E.M. careers? I haven't. The most I ever see are a few kids sitting mundanely behind lab tables in science classrooms, beakers in hand, relaying words that would do nothing to convince even me to hop on board. There is so much more that could be done, and yet we fail to do it. So girls fail to be convinced.
If we recognize that "girl" is the opportune word when aligning our goals with these girls' primary motivations at the ages we need to grab them, we open up a very different dialogue and enormous opportunities than we would otherwise. This then allows clever and effective crafting of conversations and campaigns that actually work to increase the number of girls seeking out S.T.E.M. careers. Expanding girls' limited views into those which open up their worlds -- using concepts that speak to them from the onset -- cannot be under sold. The sweet smiles of a newborn baby who might never have taken her first breath without the intelligent efforts of a geneticist (who also happens to be female), could be a commercial that would, if done right, capture the attention of many a maternally-minded youth -- especially understanding the powerful and documented drive among girls to enter careers that help others or help to change the world overall.
Letting girls in on the "perks" (beyond increased financial security) that arise from choosing a S.T.E.M. career is also playing into the interests of girls of this age. For instance, leaning on their desire to grow-up -- to spread their wings and fly out from under mommy and daddy, per se -- holds a vast opportunity for companies to cultivate future S.T.E.M. professionals through the creation of "Ambassador-Scholarship" programs that double as highly clever marketing programs.
Specifically, companies interested in inspiring girls to join the S.T.E.M. population could invite the daughters of existing employees to compete for fully-funded "tours" across the nation. The winners would become "ambassadors" of S.T.E.M. on behalf of these companies. Such tours would allow college-age girls -- already studying S.T.E.M. -- to travel around the country and speak to younger girls about S.T.E.M educations and careers. The programs could be carried out during winter and spring college breaks and in conjunction with middle schools and high schools. Additional benefits of this program include increasing the awareness around corporate scholarship opportunities for middle school and high school girls who attend these meetings, as well as the collection of valuable contact information by companies who seek to cultivate a roster of future employees through continued and supportive engagement with these girls. The opportunities here are many. The return on investment for such a program is beyond measure, as well as benefiting the middle school and high school girls who will learn rather early about the less-than-obvious benefits S.T.E.M. education and careers hold (e.g., these fully paid "tours").
We needn't overlook other basic needs, like money, to shed more light on the matter as well. In a world where "employment" is a real question to consider for so many, helping girls to realize the high value (translating into dollars) companies currently place on women in S.T.E.M. needs to be made clearly relevant to girls, now and in the future. (After all, now is when they will be making their long-term decisions.) It can be as simple as pointing out the cover of a popular girls' magazine and talking about the cost of, basically, everything in the magazine -- price tags that they will be responsible for someday given that they would like to have a few of those things without forever depending on their parents' wallets.
You can even throw a few realities of "love" into the mix. For example, women involved in S.T.E.M. careers open up their chances to meet men who are involved in the same or similar careers. The result: romance and relationships grounded in commonalities and financial stability for some. S.T.E.M. careers can be very sexy in more ways than one. And let's face it, since money problems are one of the top reasons marriages break up, decreasing this risk by making intelligent professional choices early on empowers young women to make good relationship choices, as well.
All in all, our nation needs to do a better job marketing S.T.E.M. careers to girls. Girls are not boys. They communicate very differently. Thus, using a "one size fits all" approach when convincing them to choose S.T.E.M. educations and careers will never work. We need to be equally as targeted, intelligent, aware, clever and specific in our efforts to convince girls to join the S.T.E.M. population as we have been with boys. Until that happens, we will continue to delay our own success in this regard -- not to mention the incredible progress the United States will surely experience from an increased number of women in S.T.E.M.
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