To celebrate International Day of Women and Girls in Science, ITU spoke with five leading women in the science and tech industries to ask for their advice on how to get more women interested in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) studies and careers.
Here are some of their top tips:
- Start at a younger age
“I do not think the matter is a lack of interest, rather a lack of exposure and encouragement at a younger age,” says President of Cisco Canada, Bernadette Wightman. “It starts with exposing young girls early on to STEM. We need to alter the negative perception girls may have around subjects like sciences and math. When we correct this negative perception – and encourage women to pursue their studies or career in a STEM field – we all stand to gain a lot not only as a country but as a society.”
“Diversity in all fields unlocks innovation, and innovation is a pillar for economic growth and success,” says Ms Wightman. “That’s why at Cisco we have dedicated programs and initiatives that expose young girls to the ICT sector. The Girls in ICT program, which brings in girls from middle school to learn about what we do at Cisco and the power of technology, has been incredibly instrumental in inspiring girls to seriously consider STEM fields as a focus of study and career path.”
- Make learning STEM fun
Unoma Okorafor, founder of Working to Advance STEM Education for African Women (WAAW Foundation), agrees that “we can get more girls and women into STEM by introducing girls to STEM at a much younger age even as young as 3-4 years when they start to daydream about what they might become; and moving away from stereotypes that show a girls’ place is just in the kitchen cooking or playing with dolls. It is crucial to expose girls early to fun, creative and collaborative STEM disciplines.”
Ms Okorafor was the winner of the ITU and UN Women GEM-TECH Award 2016 for impacting more than 20,000 women and girls through fun and interactive STEM education initiatives.
“Changing the way the STEM material is taught is important,” says Okorafor. “Presenting STEM activities in real world applications that solve relevant problems that girls grapple with, especially in low-resource emerging economies is crucial. If, for example, software coding is presented as a bunch of rules, abstract algorithms and lines of codes, you are not likely to engage the interest of girls. Rather if it is presented as hands on, fun activities with immediate or real applications for problem solving in areas girls care about, whether it be fashion, agriculture, nutrition, fetching water from a stream miles away or improving the lives of children, the interest of girls is piqued.”
- Provide role models and mentors
Abisoye Ajayi, Founder of the #GirlsCoding programme at Pearls Africa Foundation believes that the gender digital divide gap is too wide. “We need more female role models and ambassadors to encourage young girls to come into the STEM field,” she says.
Ms Ajayi founded a social enterprise in Nigeria to ensure that Africa’s most vulnerable girls get the opportunity to study. The organization promotes positive role models and runs mentoring programmes to inspire girls to become future engineers, computer scientists and technology workers.
- Build confidence for leadership
Studies have shown that many girls at the college level report having lower confidence in their math skills compared to boys with similar grades. This lack of confidence can affect future performance and their likelihood of graduation from STEM programmes.
“It’s really important to work with women to ensure that they have the skills and confidence to work as entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs within companies, to become problem solvers and agents for their own careers,” says Sophia Mahfooz, Director of Global Partnerships at the San Francisco-based non-profit Girls in Tech, which offers courses, mentorship and runs conferences to help women build their professional networks and to build confidence and leadership skills.
- Work with partners to create solutions
Doreen Bogdan-Martin, Chief of Strategic Planning and Membership at ITU, believes that by working together to address the challenges and implement solutions we can ensure that more women enter into STEM studies and careers.
“We need industry, governments and organizations to work together, to create solutions and to actively encourage women and girls to enter the science and tech industry,” says Ms Bogdan-Martin. “Encouraging more women to embark on STEM careers must be an ongoing priority. This is not just an equality issue but a bottom-line business imperative given that the tech sector is facing a severe skills shortfall – it is therefore a win-win, greater inclusion and equality.”
ITU along with UN Women has launched a global partnership, EQUALS, to forge connections between governments, NGOs and tech companies to use data and evidence based solutions to encourage more women to access, study and assume leadership positions in the tech industry.