and Encourage Women and Girls to Pursue STEM Careers
Even in countries with relatively progressive gender equality, like the United States, women still face challenges in the workplace of certain industries. Especially in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) fields, there is a large gender imbalance, with men holding the great majority of jobs at all levels.
My family’s involvement in this issue goes back to my great-grandmother Regina Stern founding the first school in Europe that provided higher education for girls in 1868. See the entry “How You Can Be a Danielle and Learn by Doing,” which shares this story.
The reasons for this disparity are controversial. One stereotype is that women cannot handle the stress and the technical content of STEM careers.
There is an important and very convincing historical trend that speaks powerfully to this issue. When I was growing up, doctors … were men. To be more specific, 94% of all doctors in the early 1950s in the United States were male. At the time, this was attributed to two factors. First, that being a doctor was stressful, and that women, being more sensitive, were unable to thrive in such a stressful profession.
The first part of that assertion was certainly true—being a doctor is stressful. A doctor often needs to make decisions with very incomplete information, and often in a matter of minutes, sometimes seconds, that are life or death decisions. Consider the situation of an emergency room doctor which, as the name suggests, deals with emergencies and has to decide, often in seconds, which course of action to take with only fragmentary information. And if you make the wrong decision, your patient can be harmed or die, and you will be held accountable, and possibly sued. That’s certainly high stress.
You might even say that being a doctor is more stressful than being a software engineer. In the software field, we have a name for mistakes—we call them bugs. The origin of this term was an actual bug—a moth—that Grace Murray Hopper found in the Mark I computer. She was, incidentally, the first programmer of a working computer. In fact, the first two computer programmers were women. The other was Ada Lovelace who wrote programs for the Analytical Engine in the nineteenth century. She never got to run her programs because the Analytical Engine never ran, but we have records of her programs and they have been assessed as being bug free. She was also the first to write about artificial intelligence. We have a name for the process of fixing mistakes in software engineering—it’s called debugging. In medicine, doctors don’t usually have an opportunity to fix mistakes without negative consequences.
The other factor was the assertion that women could not handle the large amount of technical information required to be a doctor. One estimate is that doctors learn about a hundred thousand chunks of knowledge, and this knowledge includes mastering a lot of scientific literature and math, and making complex technical inferences quickly.
Polls taken from that period show that the public—both men and women—were not comfortable with the idea of their doctor being a woman because of these two beliefs.
Today the situation is very different. 36% of doctors are women, but that includes the legacy of older doctors who are mostly men. With regard to the new doctors emerging from medical schools and residency programs, a majority are women. Even the highest stress specialties such as emergency medicine have a majority of the new doctors being women.
That’s quite a shift. So how has that worked out? By every measure, very well. Polls today show that both women and men are very comfortable with having a female doctor and the idea that women cannot handle either the stress or the science of being a doctor has gone away.
Some observers say that women are attracted to medicine because of the emphasis on interpersonal interaction, but we see the same demographics in areas of medicine that do not involve interacting with a person, such as radiology where you interact with an image and pathology where you interact with a tissue sample.
This is not a university study involving hundreds of people. We’re talking about hundreds of thousands of physicians in the United States treating hundreds of millions of patients. There has been a similar shift around the world with millions of physicians treating billions of patients. That should really put to rest the idea that women cannot handle professional stress as well as highly technical content.
There is a similar trend in the legal field. So why has software engineering and STEM fields in general lagged in terms of gender equality?
The good news from the history of the medical profession, which I just relayed, is twofold. First, it shows that the historical explanations regarding women’s lower ability to handle both stress and scientific content are not correct. It also shows that cultural expectations regarding gender roles and actual diversity can be dramatically changed.
There is a gender-related factor that I believe does influence career choices, and that has to do with child rearing, the burden of which still falls more on women than men. That reality is itself cultural. It is changing, but has not changed as much as it could or should. There has been some change. In 1900, 31% of the US population had jobs. Today it is 44%, and the difference is largely due to women entering the workforce.
There are increasing examples of the traditional “housewife” role being reversed. And couples with young children share the work of child rearing somewhat more equally. But it is still far from an equal distribution.
One of the reasons cited for women’s interest in being a doctor is the flexibility of hours. Although being an intern is notoriously demanding with very long shifts, once a doctor gets through that rite of professional passage, they have the flexibility to take a few years off, or work part time for several years—per child—without harming their career status. They can simply pick up working full time again when their children are older.
That flexibility typically does not exist in tech jobs for women or men. My own view is that we should move in that direction, for both genders. That would make tech jobs more attractive to women and also help couples more equally share the child-rearing role. Traditional maternity and paternity benefits, while generally progressive in the tech industry compared to some other industries, is not nearly sufficient to address this issue. Tech employees generally do not have the option to work part time for an extended period of time, and if they leave for more than a few months they are likely to lose their job.
I think a change in these policies would make engineering jobs more attractive to women and also facilitate more equal sharing of the job of child rearing. Trying to influence these policies is one way to change the STEM imbalance.
Another general recommendation is to address what is called the pipeline issue (the flow of girls and women entering STEM fields), and that needs to be addressed starting in elementary school.
In the novel, Danielle breaks down stereotypes in many ways. She encourages her followers to reconsider their fixed ideas about gender roles, encourages educational reforms, and excels herself as a scientist. Winning Nobel Prizes in Physics and Medicine sets a powerful example for girls and women all over the world. In real life, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg has taken a leading role in improving women’s opportunities in the workforce, and in encouraging girls to study STEM.
Sandberg, who has served as Chief Operating Officer of Facebook since 2008, saw firsthand how women working in technology often struggle to get the same opportunities as men. In 2010, she gave a TED Talk 1 titled “Why We Have Too Few Women Leaders,” which went viral. Women all over the world started sharing their stories in response, and Sandberg was inspired to write a 2013 book called Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead.2 The book offered women practical tips on how to balance the demands of careers and families, and it soon became a #1 New York Times bestseller. The book led to a whole “Lean In” movement.3 Here’s how you can participate:
- For women and girls.4 Based on her experiences, Sandberg observed that women pursuing leadership roles often fail to support each other. Some say they feel threatened by other women, or that older women in leadership roles are reluctant to mentor them and give them a “hand up” the corporate ladder. Lean In offers advice on how women can help each other succeed in several ways:
- Ally-ship. Being allies to each other in the face of gender bias or mistreatment. Too often, women observe someone else experiencing sexism, and stay silent for fear of seeming oversensitive or humorless. By working together, women can make it much harder for abuse to keep happening.
- For anyone to succeed in a competitive industry, they need mentorship from older and more experienced colleagues. Since it often feels more natural for men to mentor younger men, this leaves young women without the career advice, connections, and support that their male counterparts get. Women can break this cycle by acting as mentors to younger women and girls. You can be a mentor at any age!
- It can be very helpful to women to have a supportive group of peers who can encourage each other, share experiences, and exchange advice on how to deal with challenges in the workplace.
- Role modeling. How young women act sets an example for girls who look up to them. By speaking with confidence, showing leadership, and being willing to take risks for what they believe in, women can model for girls how they can break down gender stereotypes.
- For men and boys.5 Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg recognizes that women can’t achieve a level playing field in the workplace on their own. It requires men working with them proactively to create a fairer environment for everyone. Lean In has suggestions for concrete ways men can support women’s careers. This ranges from showing husbands how they can better share parenting responsibilities with their wives to tips for male managers on how to fight sexism on their teams. Some of these ideas are applicable in school as well. For example, boys should be careful not to interrupt girls (or other boys either!) during class discussions. This helps create an environment where both boys and girls feel welcome.
- Go deeper.6 Lean In offers lots of resources to help you learn what you can do about this problem. Whether you’re a young woman starting a career, a girl interested in studying STEM, or a guy wondering how to make your school or workplace fairer for everyone, you can learn practical steps to have a positive impact. These resources include:
- Videos of talks by experts on subjects like leadership, gender bias, negotiation, and balancing career with other priorities.
- Essays and research articles that can help you understand this issue more deeply. They can also be helpful when you discuss gender bias with someone who does not agree that it is a problem. It helps to be able to point them to both scientific studies and firsthand experiences of women who experienced discrimination in the workplace.
- Guides on how to form Lean In groups among your peers, and ideas for activities that can help young women connect and form relationships. If you’d like to find a Lean In group (known as Lean In Circles) to join in your local area, or want to start one of your own, here’s how you can make it happen.7
- Lean In’s 10 tips for recent graduates,8 with powerful strategies for young women to start their careers ready to break down stereotypes and achieve the success they want.
- Sheryl Sandberg’s follow-up talk9 “So We Leaned In … Now What?” about reactions to her ideas and what has changed in response to the Lean In movement.
Usually, gender bias isn’t the result of deliberate prejudice. In most cases, it doesn’t happen because men hate women, or consciously want to make life harder for them. Rather, it comes from the way our brains naturally process information about the world. We instinctively use our own experiences to form generalizations. If children (and adults) rarely see women as CEOs, it’s easy to assume that it’s natural for CEOs to be men. The same is true for professions like engineers and mathematicians.
This means that one of the most effective ways of eliminating stereotypes is making people aware of people who have broken the stereotype. When girls grow up seeing female CEOs and STEM professionals, it will be easy to imagine themselves in those same roles. And when boys grow up seeing those examples, they won’t see it as unusual for women to have leadership roles in the workplace, or to compete in previously male-dominated fields. Therefore, you can help end gender bias by learning about stereotype-breaking women, and sharing their stories more widely.
- 16 more TED Talks by strong women leaders.10Listen to their personal stories, think about how they overcame challenges and obstacles in their way, and consider how you can apply those lessons in your own education and career. If one has a strong impact on you, share it in your social networks to spread the message.
- Another 11 TED Talks, by brilliant women in STEM.11 Watch what they’ve accomplished, and let your friends know about their achievements—most probably haven’t heard about them!
- Not only is gender bias a problem in the workplace, but lingering racism can also affect women from minority groups. The combination of sexism and racism can make career success especially difficult for women from these backgrounds. For inspiration, take a look at these 33 black women12 who have achieved great success despite those challenges. You can use these stories to refute the stereotype that minority women aren’t driven or successful.
In addition to helping raise the profile of women role models in STEM, it’s also important to be careful about the way we talk to young girls ourselves.
- Focus on ideas instead of beauty. Our culture encourages people to constantly tell little (and big!) girls how pretty they are. Of course, there is nothing wrong with being beautiful, but undue attention on looks unintentionally sends the message that girls’ appearance is what people care about most. Lisa Bloom13 has some great advice about how to focus instead on ideas—ask girls what books they are reading, what they are learning in school, and what they’re curious about! This sends the message that people are interested in what they have to say and what they are thinking.
- Support their interests. Many STEM-related toys are marketed as being for boys. Unfortunately, this means that older people may discourage young girls who ask for those toys or want to play with them. As a result, they may be turned off the path toward STEM early in life. You can help break this cycle by encouraging girls who show STEM interests—buy them science toys that may be intended for boys, expose them to new STEM-related experiences, and talk to them about their interests and goals.
- Encourage leadership. In 2014, the Lean In movement launched a campaign called #BanBossy.14 Sheryl Sandberg and her colleagues noticed that little girls who are confident and assertive are often called “bossy.” By contrast, the same traits in boys are more likely to be seen as positive signs of leadership ability. #BanBossy doesn’t refer to a literal ban, but encourages people to stop using language that sends girls the message that they should not be leaders.
Finally, although women are underrepresented in STEM leadership roles, the problem doesn’t start there. There are too few women CEOs because there are too few women in the senior management jobs that CEOs are drawn from. And there are too few women in those jobs because they are underrepresented throughout the career pipeline, going all the way back to internships and first jobs. And it’s hard to fix that as long as girls face stereotypes that discourage them to study STEM in school in the first place. For this reason, the best way to open women’s opportunity in STEM careers is to give girls opportunity to pursue STEM interests while they’re still students. Here are some great initiatives for girls in STEM that you should consider supporting or participating in:
- 1000 Girls, 1000 Futures15 is a global project for girls ages 13–19 who are interested in STEM. It provides one-to-one mentoring from female scientists and engineers, along with special coursework to feed their curiosity, and networking with other like-minded girls.
- Girls Who Code16 is a nonprofit that works to help schools, churches, or other community organizations start computer programming clubs for girls in grades 6-12. It also runs a 7-week Summer Immersion Program for girls in grades 10–11, which provides focused coding experiences and exposure to STEM jobs.
- Girlstart17 is a Texas-based nonprofit that sponsors STEM education programs for girls in grades K–12. The local activities include summer camps, after-school programs, conferences, and community-based events, but Girlstart provides lots of useful free STEM education resources that you can access from anywhere.
- Girls into Global STEM18 is primarily aimed at girls in Europe, but its resources are useful to STEM-interested girls everywhere. GIGS provides information and educational resources for teachers to help bring girls into STEM. The program focuses on how STEM skills can be used to achieve a positive impact around the globe on humanitarian issues.
- Girls Inc.19 is a nationwide American nonprofit that does research on girls’ education, advocates for expanded opportunities for girls in STEM, and offers competitive scholarships. It sponsors educational activities all around the United States and Canada, including Operation SMART (Science, Math, and Relevant Technology), which provides programs and resources for girls to develop skills and interests in STEM subjects. Find a Girls Inc. group near you!
- For more local options, take a look at the Connectory,20 which lets you look up STEM programs in or near your ZIP code.
- Pathways to Science21 provides a directory of STEM programs for young women, with a wide range of age ranges, subjects, and geographic locations.
You can find more tips to help you encourage girls and women in STEM and the workplace by looking at the entries for “How You Can Be a Danielle and learn to program computers from a young age”; “How You Can Be a Danielle and foster learn by doing”; “How You Can Be a Danielle and help promote equal rights for women”; and “How You Can Be a Danielle and promote racial and gender equality.”