Growing up, I loved math and science. I loved the challenge of using math equations to solve problems and I loved how these subjects could be applied to things in my everyday life. However, as I prepared to apply for university, I was dissuaded from studying these subjects further despite strong encouragement from my parents. At the time, I didn’t see how science and math related to exciting careers or many women “like me” in those areas and professions. I often wonder if my path of study and career would have been different with additional encouragement and visible role models.
Ultimately, there is a silver lining to my personal journey. I studied Liberal Arts and Law, but I never lost my fascination with the intersection of technology and creativity. It’s no surprise then that these interests led me to become a lawyer for video game companies – a place where creativity and technology collide every day–and that ultimately led to my role at Microsoft where I lead our legal team here in Europe.
Although the world is a very different place for young girls today than the one I knew, gender stereotypes in both study and the workplace remain. In March, we unveiled research that girls today are optimistic about gender equality overall and the believe they are the first generation to reject the idea that boys have a natural aptitude for STEM career choices. However, when asked whether they could imagine themselves pursuing a STEM related career, an alarming 58 percent said no because they couldn’t see female role models in those subject areas. Despite the seeming equality uncovered by our research, how could these beliefs still exist?
Greater gender balance in these areas can only be achieved if we first increase the number of young women who actually see themselves pursuing STEM into further education. But that is just the beginning. As young women begin STEM studies and careers we have a responsibility to provide mentoring, encouragement, training and support that helps them continue.
Our research focused on learning more about what is motivating and discouraging girls from STEM subjects. We looked at the age when girls engage and disengage from these subjects, but importantly we also wanted to learn why. The research proved that girls in Europe become interested in these subjects at the age of eleven and a half but that interest starts to drop after their 15th birthday. This gives us just four years to nurture that initial passion before we risk losing another potential computer scientist from the talent pipeline.
Those of us who work in the technology sector know that women have been historically underrepresented. In Europe, women only represent 30 percent of the ICT workforce and globally, only 16 percent of STEM graduates are women. This needs to change.
So, what can we do to reverse this trend and encourage more girls to study STEM?
1. More female STEM role models
The Oscar-nominated film, Hidden Figures tells the story of three women working at NASA in the 50s. However, these tales of female scientists and mathematicians are often lost in history, so girls, simply don’t see themselves reflected in what their futures could look like.
We must celebrate the many contributions European women already make. To mark International Women’s Day this year, we partnered with Modern Muse in the UK, an online platform where women in business share their workplace experiences in the hope of inspiring youngsters. It’s extremely encouraging to see that 70 ‘muses’ have signed up thus far. In addition, we are driving multiple computer science and technology focused-programmes, like DigiGirlz, across countries in Europe to engage more girls and young women in STEM careers. These provide opportunities for girls to meet personally with women working in the industry and develop their digital skills – which is vital in today’s changing European workforce.
2. Nurture creative and hands-on experiences
Our research found that young girls love experiments, math riddles and coding challenges. Yet 39 percent of European girls said they’re not getting enough of either of these in STEM classes. In the classroom, technologies like Minecraft or Skype in the Classroom can help students create and explore virtual worlds, learn basic coding and develop social skills. To help shift perceptions about STEM jobs we recently asked some of my colleagues in Europe why STEM jobs are creative. I encourage you to watch this video to see how these inspiring women are harnessing technology creatively to make an impact on the world.
3. More mentors and encouragement inside and outside the classroom.
When teachers talk to girls about STEM subjects and provide active encouragement, girls become more attracted to these disciplines. Over half (56 percent) of those girls and young women we spoke to said they would like to receive more encouragement from teachers. Creating an interactive and gender-neutral environment in classes also helps young women to participate and feel engaged. One study from the University of California, Berkeley, showed that by simply changing the types of objects found in a science classroom from stereotypically male Star Trek posters to more neutral objects such as nature posters and water bottles, was enough to raise female students’ interest levels in the subject matter.
As a mother of a 15-year-old daughter, I hope the insights revealed in this research will help companies like us, as well as educators, parents and policymakers take practical steps to get more young women interested in science and technology. We recently published a book called A Cloud for Global Good, which includes policy recommendations for creating a more inclusive and diverse society – from getting computer science on the curricula, to fostering public-private partnerships, or investing in lifelong skills training.
Last year, we started a movement to inspire girls to #MakeWhatsNext. This year, we challenged girls to stay in STEM so they can solve the problems they care about most, ranging from finding solutions to climate change to curing cancer. If you want to be part of this movement, I encourage you to get involved. With more encouragement in the classroom and at home, we can help break down the barriers that are keeping women out of STEM careers.
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