STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) is an acronym familiar even to those not in the higher education or economic policy sectors. We’ve heard it used plenty of times by President Obama and others arguing the point that improving STEM education is critical to the nation’s economic success. We also hear about STEM from diversity advocates who, rightly, argue for resources to increase the number of women and minorities participating in STEM fields.
To say that STEM is a “hot topic” right now is an understatement. Yet, the way STEM is discussed among policy circles often lacks the feeling of excitement and innovation that science and technology is known for. Why? If we want to diversify STEM, and in particular increase women’s participation, shouldn’t we speak passionately and convincingly to young women about why they should seriously consider a STEM-focused career?
Take a listen to the appearance of Dr. Mae Jemison on the NPR radio quiz show “Wait, Wait…Don’t Tell Me.” As the first African-American woman astronaut, Dr. Jemison joyfully discussed how her love of science began as a child examining a splinter in her hand, watching the sci-fi television show “Star Trek,” and making mud pies. Dr. Jemison’s interest in science grew from her curiosity and exploration of the world around her. That sense of joy and enthusiasm should translate to how we speak to young women about STEM if we want them to think more realistically about working in these fields. And because technology is such a ubiquitous part of our existence today, there is a wealth of opportunities to make these connections.
For instance, social media is a golden opportunity to connect women’s everyday experiences to STEM education. Women are significantly more likely to use social media sites, like Twitter, Facebook, and Pinterest, according to the Pew Research Center. Women ages 18-29 are particularly likely to use Facebook, Pinterest, and Instagram. Young women should be encouraged not just to use these sites, but to also understand how they work. There’s a great opportunity to use social media as a way to introduce young women to computer science, a field in which women are woefully underrepresented.
Which leads us to our second point: Encouraging more women to make the leap from technology user to developer builds the connection between STEM education and entrepreneurship. Technology is certainly a part of any business these days, but women who have broken into the ranks of high venture start-ups have done so using technology in advanced ways. Take a look at the website “thejanedough.com,” which recently compiled a list of “Women Entrepreneurs to Watch in 2013.” Science and technology plays a significant role in many of these entrepreneurs’ business models and has helped them attract high stakes investors. For instance, Stacey Ferreira co-founded the company My Social Cloud, which stores user passwords and sends an alert if they are ever stolen, when she was 18 years old. Last year she attracted the attention of Sir Richard Branson who invested $1 million into the company.
Young women should be aware of entrepreneurs like Stacey Ferreira and more emphasis should be placed on using media to show women who are actively involved in STEM, especially at a young age. The myth that women aren’t interested in STEM is just that, a myth. But you might never know it because images of young women working in STEM are few and far between. More should be done to bring attention to women’s participation in STEM, through events like “Women’s Hackday” and other similar efforts that STEM and diversity advocates can point to and partner with to draw more attention from women.
How do you think the STEM conversation can become more relevant for women? Give us your thoughts below in the comments section.