“We don’t want to just increase the number of American students in STEM,” he told the audience. “We want to make sure everybody is involved. We want to increase the diversity of STEM programs, as well… and that means reaching out to boys and girls, men and women of all races and all backgrounds. Science is for all of us. And we want our classrooms and labs and workplaces and media to reflect that.”
Nicola Palmer, chief network engineering officer at Verizon, concurs. With an estimated 65 percent of STEM degrees in the U.S. awarded to men over the past decade, STEM careers have started to regress in regard to gender equality. This occurs despite 60 percent of college graduates being women.
So what’s going on here?
According to reports, the issue boils down to how girls are raised. Stereotyping, coupled with what is known as implicit bias, leads to women being exposed to perceived ‘female roles’ from an early age.
Palmer recognizes this problem, insisting that “[t]he key is to start early.”
“With our youngest girls, let’s show them the wonder of science in our everyday lives through nature and play. Let’s intervene in middle school to hold their interest as pressure mounts to abandon ‘geeky’ studies. Let’s partner with teachers to provide role models and a support system,” Palmer said.
Research from Microsoft shows that exposing girls to hands-on STEM activities increases their sense of empowerment. 75 percent of girls who participated in STEM activities outside the classroom reported feeling highly empowered as compared to just 50 percent who only experienced STEM activities within the classroom.
The Verizon executive points to confidence and acknowledging the importance of people, specifically those who help her succeed.
“I learned about the importance of connecting with people and customers on the “frontline” and learned that no matter how much design optimization and automation occurs, it’s ultimately people that will make it work or not work.”
Palmer went on to speak on the importance of the home front. The same Microsoft report shows that external affirmation can also go a long way to help guide women towards STEM roles. Researchers found that only 36 percent of girls will pursue computer science courses in high school out of their own will. This number nearly doubles when parents provide verbal support to their daughters. This continues on into adulthood, with some research showing that who a woman marries can influence her career choices.
And, yet again, Palmer’s sentiment matches the research. “Your network outside of work is equally, if not more, important. I often joke that the most pivotal career decision a woman can make is who they choose to marry. The truth is, the home support system for women with demanding jobs is vital and there is no one size fits all strategy for success.”
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