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Attracting Girls to STEM: Four Ways Women in Tech Can Help

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As a female technical professional, how can you help to improve the decreasing numbers and high attrition rate of women in technology? By smoothing rough paths for your colleagues and upcoming newbies. Writer and entrepreneur Thursday Bram suggests four important ways in which technology professionals can help to attract more girls to the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), and help to keep those women on their chosen path.
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Getting more girls interested in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) isn't just a question of creating diversity. It's a matter of simple numbers: By 2022, 1.2 million new computer programming jobs are expected to open up in the U.S., of which only 39% can be filled by the number of computer science majors projected to graduate in the U.S. by then. These numbers, collected by the National Center for Women & Information Technology, show that industry should push everyone who shows even a slight interest toward a STEM career—regardless of their demographics.

When you're in the trenches of a technical field, figuring out how to get someone else interested enough in what you do to consider pursuing it as her own long-term career seems impossible. Just the same, there are some things that you should do, especially from the perspective of a woman in tech who's interested in supporting the entry of other women into tech fields.

Key 1: Be Present in the Room

While it seems like a small thing, being visibly present can have a big impact, especially if you go out of your way to talk about your work. Every time you go to a meet-up, a career day, or another event, your very presence can normalize the idea of technology as a women's field.

One of the biggest problems with getting more girls into STEM fields is the lack of female role models—not necessarily because women aren't involved in those fields, but rather because those women don't seek the limelight, especially if they feel like they're in the minority. When students look at a field and don't see anyone with whom they can identify (an instructor, a mentor, or someone working in the career they want), they're less likely to choose that field.

As tough as it may be to put yourself front and center, doing so is one of the most important steps you can take to lead other women into your field. Talking up other prospective role models is also crucial (and perhaps a little easier for some of us to do). You may need to do some research, though: How many female startup founders can you name? Mark Zuckerberg may be a household name, but what about Caterina Fake, who cofounded Flickr and Hunch? The lack of names that may come to your mind should drive this point home.

Key 2: Be Open to Mentorship or Teaching

Mentorship is one of the keys to helping other people move into a field, whether we're talking about STEM industries or other niches. If your goal is to see more women in your workplace, taking a personal interest in the people who will eventually be a part of that workplace is crucial.

Any time you have the opportunity to take on an intern or to participate in a mentorship program, jump at the chance. Even if you aren't sure you'll know what to do in such a role, remember that just showing up is the first key—your mere presence in the room will show women considering a STEM career that there's a place for them. If your workplace doesn't have such programs, consider advocating for them. The whole process may sound like a lot of work, but consultants are available to create internal programs, and books have been published that lay out the entire process. As long as you're willing to speak up in favor of a program, you may be able to start the ball rolling without having to run the program yourself.

Just saying "Yes" to opportunities isn't enough, though. LinkedIn did a study a few years ago that included questions on why women without mentors hadn't found that sort of help. The response was clear; 67% of women who had never been mentors said that they hadn't been asked. Despite the importance of mentoring to achieving progress in a professional field, it can be hard to seek out mentors. On top of that, not everyone who might seem like a good mentor is available or interested—and a single "No" can put someone off from asking for a long time.

So if you see any potential, whether from a girl who might want to study a STEM topic but doesn't know where to start, or a junior employee who needs more specific guidance in your company, be proactive on her behalf. You don't necessarily have to commit to a lengthy mentorship; just taking the time to talk with her about her plans and the resources she'll need to succeed can make a huge impact. Even loaning my old introductory-level programming books to high school students made a big difference, in part because I made it easy for them to learn what resources they needed. That small favor also helped normalize computer programming for them; someone they already knew had the books and could answer some questions. Just making a habit of asking how you can help will make it easier to find people who are interested in moving forward.

If you aren't sure how to build these relationships, even for informally mentoring students interested in your field, look for organizations seeking volunteer mentors—or even volunteers in general. For many organizations, finding mentors and other volunteers is a major sticking point. Jean MacDonald, the founder of App Camp For Girls, noted in an interview, "Women in the STEM fields should volunteer if they are able. Finding qualified women volunteers is the gating factor for App Camp For Girls, and I would imagine that is true for other all-female programs."

Key 3: Give Money and Time to Programs Doing the Work

The number of nonprofits and programs dedicated to helping girls get interested in STEM fields is booming. It's a hot topic, if only because plenty of companies see encouraging women into careers like computer programming will result in bigger talent pools in the long run. Some programs are doing incredibly good work in reaching out to girls, but all these programs are chronically short of money. Many can't expand beyond the cities where they already operate—they just don't have the funding.

There's an easy solution for anyone who wants to help these students gain access to a wide variety of opportunities: Even if you're not working in a STEM field yourself right now, donate to a program that helps students explore STEM topics.

Remember, your time is an equally important resource. MacDonald explains: "We have a chicken-and-egg problem. Our goal is to encourage more girls to get excited about app development. We have an all-female camp staff to inspire them and provide role models. But there are so few women who are app developers. In order to achieve our goal, we have to train and support women who can be counselors (or project team managers, as we call them). Ultimately, that requires additional funds, but in that process, we end up with more girls and more women in the field."

Especially if you come from a technical background, you may be tempted to take a swing at solving the problem yourself. My social circle might be unusual, but I personally know a dozen nonprofit founders who are tackling issues related to technical employment, and all of those women come from a technical background, rather than from nonprofits. But while such an approach is increasingly common, it also means that the resources for such nonprofits are becoming even slimmer as they're divided between more organizations. Jumping into starting your own nonprofit is difficult at best, and there's no need to do so.

However, most of these organizations are always looking for volunteers who are willing to put in the time to make classes and other events a success. Organizations like Girl Develop It are organized on a city-by-city basis; the central organization does a lot of the hard work of setting up specific types of events or curricula for classes, but then someone needs to build up a local group for the organization to enter a new city. If taking ownership of a project is important to you, you can find options for doing so while still working with existing organizations.

Key 4: Take Action!

Mentoring, volunteering, and even donating money to organizations can be major commitments—but these actions are crucial to creating more diverse work environments. The simple truth is that without clear examples of women like them in STEM careers, most girls will subconsciously consider such paths difficult to pursue. Every step along the way will bring other challenges. Money and time will smooth the path, but that initial step is crucial.

You may be tempted to tell yourself that if you were able to carve out a career, others will be able to follow your lead without any further help. But it's not that simple. Even small incidents can lead to the staggering 56% of women in programming who switch away before they reach the middle of their careers. Working with the wrong team, choosing the wrong mentor, or otherwise dealing with a small problem can become insurmountable problems in a woman's career.

How can you help to start addressing this problem at the source? Smooth the path for those junior employees, interns, and students who may just be starting to consider STEM. This is the best way to create a more inclusive work environment, even beyond the matter of gender. In turn, that diversity will help to drive the innovation that technical fields need in order to continue evolving.

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