I recently sat down for a visit with friend who is running a program focused on STEM, and his insights into the boy/girl ratio were discouraging. “We offer coding camps and courses and work hard to get the word out to everyone. We send invitations to all of the girl-focused organizations. But last time, we only had one girl show up. This time? None.”
A study released by Google indicated that when girls aren’t familiar with technology, they view STEM as hard, difficult and boring. But here’s the thing: I honestly don’t believe that girls are turned off by STEM because it’s hard or simply because girls think they’re bad at math. Girls aren’t wimps or wilting flowers; they don’t shrink from challenges just because something isn’t a strength. When girls are inspired, when they believe the payoff is worth the risk, discomfort, fear or effort, they can be unrelenting in the pursuit of a goal. Self-doubt doesn’t stop a girl when she wants something bad enough.
The problem isn’t that girls don’t think they can code; the problem is that they don’t want to code badly enough to get past any of their doubts or weaknesses. If you think about it, why shouldn’t girls be turned off? Think of what we see in movies, television – or in the news. The entertainment industry rarely portrays ‘tech’ characters with anyone young girls easily identity with; far too often those characters are either bad boy bro-culture or awkward misfits – neither of which are stereotypes that inspire girls to imagine themselves enjoying a career spent coding. And if you read tech news at all, you know how often it is filled with stories of badly behaving executives, unequal pay for women, and limited opportunities for funding for women in tech. We, as a culture, really aren’t doing a very good job of selling tech to girls.
If we are going to get more girls into STEM and have them like it, I firmly believe we need to change the “why” of these programs and events. Consider that have girls have flocked to Girl Scouts for over a century, in large part, because Girl Scouts play to girls’ natural strengths of leadership and social problem solving.
We need to stop telling an entire gender they need to embrace STEM because it’s good for their brain or if they don’t, boys will get all the good, high-paying jobs. It’s not working, and I’m kind of glad, because it means girls aren’t buying the logic that they need to do something just because boys do. We need to play to girls’ strengths and invite them to participate in projects that create solutions for social issues or problems that they care about – and then offer accessible tech which empowers girls to stop thinking about doing STEM and just use the technology, developing skills along the way as a means to an end. When STEM is simply a set of skills and tools to help solve problems we care about, it takes the scary out of tech.
Besides, girls most definitely embrace tech – think of the evolution of selfies since the introduction of camera phones, of instagram videos and photos with powerful storytelling in the unique framing and juxtaposition of images, and even the storyboarding on Pinterest – all predominantly female audiences using tech as the background for their creative expression.
Our team at APPCityLife recently flew out to California as a technical sponsor for a local weekend challenge focused on solving congestion problems. When I asked one of the attendees, what motivated her and her companion to come to the event, she said, “We don’t either one of us know how to develop apps, so we just showed up hoping someone else here would like our idea enough to take it for their own project and run with it.”
I should add that she told me this as she stood next to me moments after she and her team were named the winners. She stood there smiling at her other two team members, shaking her head in dismay. “We won. We won,” she said. She paused and then said again, “We won!”
Imagine waking up early on a rainy Saturday morning to attend a local hackathon – and being willing to do that without any hope of participating in any meaningful way beyond attempting to convince someone else with the right skills to take your idea and run with it. But when she and her companion heard the announcement that our platform was available to attendees, they wanted to learn more. We initially developed our platform for our own needs of robust app development and management, but its user-friendly interface makes it more easily accessible for those without prior coding experience. The need for such a gateway platform in the civic space inspired us to begin opening it up to the public through events like that weekend’s hackathon.
The couple attended our brief bootcamp and eventually teamed up with another attendee. For the rest of the weekend, the three worked under the mentoring of our team to build out their prototype mobile application and test the viability of the original ideas of a woman who believed her solution could improve the experience of riders while helping stimulate the local economy. She showed up with an idea and left with the understanding that she didn’t have to give her idea away to someone else with the right skills; she and her team could own it themselves and create their own solution.
It has been one of my proudest moments in my company when we were able to celebrate the success of her team. It was something to realize we were able to offer a portal into this incredibly rich world of tech, and our team of mentors made that experience a positive, rewarding one.
The response since the hackathon has been more than I expected. I was happy with an early win and validation, but I wasn’t expecting what followed. Invitations are starting to roll in for our team to bring our platform to civic and tech events across the U.S as well as Mexico City. We’ve entered very early conversations with a few educational institutions about launching gateway STEM programs. And we have already forged exciting new partnerships with inspiring groups like the Geek Girls Club of the YWCA of the City of New York, which, by the way, is also the oldest women’s organization in the U.S.. In fact, our team will host our first bootcamp of the year this coming January in the heart of New York City for high school girls who are actively exploring this rich, exciting world of STEM, whether by traditional means or something else in-between.
The demand is high and growing rapidly. We’re a small startup, but we’ve already imagined great things that we simply got busy and made happen. I am committed to push forward with one of our more lofty goals – to empower those who have had little or no access or enough valid reasons to enter the world of STEM. I am hoping others will be inspired by our early wins – like when our civic bootcamp ended up with over 50% women in attendance – and that others will be inspired to support and join our efforts so we can begin to change the ‘why’ for more girls and help shift the metrics just a bit more every time in the right direction. Together, I firmly believe that we erase the real and imagined barriers into tech by creating easier access to gateway platforms which lower the barrier of entry for so many groups who have believed themselves a poor fit for whatever reason within this world of STEM.
That’s a pretty powerful ‘why’, don’t you think?
Also published on Huffington Post.