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Why We Need More Girls in STEM

The importance of female roles in STEM #MakeYourMark

When I first started GoldieBlox, I dreamed of getting little girls involved in engineering. It became very clear during my first semester at Stanford that I was one of the few women in my classes. Why were all my classes full of men? Where were all the women? After graduating, I took these questions along with my own experiences as a little girl and came up with the idea to create construction toys to get girls involved in engineering at a young age. However, when I launched my Kickstarter, I was asked the same questions over, and over, and over again.

Why is it so important to get more girls involved in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics? Why not just let all the men do the engineering?

Here’s my answer:

The fastest-growing jobs worldwide require engineering and tech training. There are huge opportunities for women in these jobs, yet there are still so few women entering these fields. If we truly want women to have equal opportunities, we need to intervene at a young age to ensure we are encouraging them and building their interest early on, so that they even consider STEM in the first place. We need to present STEM in a way that will appeal to girls. If we can do that, endless doors will open by giving women access to the same economic opportunities that men already have.

STEM jobs are building the world and the future from infrastructure to space exploration, transportation, clean energy, and much more. These careers are solving our world’s greatest challenges. When you have people of different backgrounds involved in building the solutions that our world needs, you get improved solutions. A diverse group of people contributes to new and fresh perspectives.

There are real-world examples of what happens when you don’t have the fresh perspective of gender diversity on your engineering teams. Nora Denzel, a computer scientist with over 20 years of experience at three Fortune 500 companies, gave a speech at the Grace Hopper Celebration in 2012; and shared these three examples of why gender-diverse teams make better decisions:

  1. An all-male team invented the early speech-recognition machines and therefore calibrated the machines for their voices. When they tried to sell them to female secretarial teams, the technology failed miserably. It wasn’t until 1984 when DECtalk was invented—the first speech-recognition system calibrated for both men and women.
  2. The same thing happened when the airbag was invented. When the all-male team engineered the airbag, they used the height and weight chart for the standard man. The unintended side effect resulted in casualties of both children and women until it was calibrated differently.
  3. Unfortunately, over a billion people on the planet do not have access to a reliable water source. Multidisciplinary engineering teams went into 15 African countries and asked, How do we fix the problem of unreliable access to water? They later went back to look at the data, and they found that when women were included on both the team and in interviews, the project was more successful and lasted longer.

After walking down the construction toy aisles, it was very clear to me that the female perspective was lacking. Before GoldieBlox, the only construction toys on the market were the pink versions of the boy toys. And guess what? They were not selling very well. This is where I thought I could bring my female point of view into the world of construction toys. I didn’t have construction toys growing up, but I knew from my childhood what interested me as a young girl. I came up with the idea to combine storytelling with building and characters with narratives. Being a woman and designing a construction set came from an entirely different perspective than the world had seen, and, as a result, GoldieBlox has been hugely successful in engaging girls in a new, innovative way.

Until GoldieBlox, construction toys were invented by men. As a result, very few girls were playing with them, and they, therefore, didn’t have the same advantages of building fine spatial and motor skills. As soon as I tackled this problem by bringing my own unique perspective, having my own lived experience as a little girl, I was able to innovate in ways that the industry hadn’t seen in 100 years. I very quickly disproved the well-known stereotype that girls don’t like engineering, and I opened up new opportunities for future generations.

My story is only one of the countless other stories of women entering male-dominated fields and breaking down barriers.

One story that has always stuck out to me is Gwynne Shotwell’s. Shotwell is the Chief Operating Officer of SpaceX and an incredible aerospace engineer. When Shotwell was 15 years old, her mother dragged her to a Society of Women’s Engineering event. She remembers not wanting to be at the event, but there was a female mechanical engineer on the panel that she was fascinated by. The engineer owned her own company, was developing construction materials that were environmentally friendly and played with solar energy. Shotwell was also fascinated by this woman’s fabulous suit. After the panel, she went up to speak to the woman about her suit and her business. Shotwell left the event thinking she too could be an engineer.

As one of only three women majoring in mechanical engineering, Shotwell graduated with honors from Northwestern University. After completing a master’s in applied mathematics, she took a job at the Aerospace Corporation. Shotwell worked as an aerospace engineer there for 10 years, and then in 2002, she had a chance meeting with Elon Musk, the founder of a brand-new startup called SpaceX. Musk called Shotwell back that same day to immediately recruit her for Vice President of Business Development. She was SpaceX’s 11th employee.

Today, Shotwell is responsible for the operations and management of all customers and strategic relations to support company growth at SpaceX. She participates in a variety of STEM-related programs and has raised more than $350,000 in scholarships in six years.

Shotwell shatters the typical “nerd” engineer stereotype. She strongly believes you should not have to downplay your gender to thrive in male-dominated industries. Just like the female mechanical engineer that Shotwell saw when she was 15 years old, young girls everywhere can look up to Shotwell and think, “I can be an engineer too.”

While the number of women in STEM has improved since Shotwell and I were young girls, there is still a lot of progress to be made.

Tracy Chou, a female computer scientist, revealed how few women there were in tech jobs. Chou is a daughter of immigrants. She studied computer science at Stanford with a focus in machine learning and artificial intelligence. While studying, she interned at Google, Facebook, and Rocket Fuel. She later went on to receive her master’s in computer science. In 2011, Chou was one of the first 15 employees to join Pinterest.

Even though Chou was making huge strides in STEM, she still felt out of place. In October 2013, Chou attended the Grace Hopper Celebration, where she became curious about female representation in tech companies. Chou headed to her blog and urged technology companies to disclose the number of women they had in technical roles. She set up a repository on GitHub and had statistics from over 50 firms within a week.

Her focus on this issue has pressured companies like Google, Facebook, and Microsoft, to reveal more diversity statistics about the balance of their workforces. Chou has identified a number of reasons for the disparity of women in technology. Her argument is that if no one suggests to a woman that a career in technology is a realistic possibility, she is less likely to consider it. Because of Chou, Pinterest launched a project in 2015 to hire more women and minorities.

It’s clear that once you get more women into these fields, things change and progress for the better. Shotwell and Chou are just two of the many women who inspire me every day, and we need more role models like them. I am so happy that Acer has created the Make Your Mark campaign so that we can spotlight more of them because these are the women who are going to influence the next generation.

Please share your story or spotlight a woman in your community who is empowering the future by using the hashtag #MakeYourMark and sharing this post.

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