How to inspire more girls to pursue STEM education and careers

      Contributed by Audra Eng

      You have probably read news recognizing the need for more women in STEM careers. A National Geographic article on this topic states, "According to U.S. Census Bureau statistics, women in fields commonly referred to as STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) made up 7% of that workforce in 1970, a figure that had jumped to 23% by 1990. But the rise essentially stopped there. Two decades later, in 2011, women made up 26% of the science workforce."

      Why does this matter? We need more women in STEM careers for three reasons:

  1. There are an estimated 1.4M new U.S. technology jobs that will be available by 2020, and with the current graduation rates in STEM careers - the U.S. will only fill about 30% of those jobs. We need more women and men in technology careers to help fill that gap!
  2. Technical innovation requires diversity. A diverse workforce leads to better products for diverse users. When women are not involved in the design of products, needs and desires unique to women may be overlooked. Analysts say that more women are needed in research to increase the range of inventions and breakthroughs that come from looking at problems differently than men typically do. Diversity ensures better products for the entire population, and thus higher profits for those companies that employ a more diverse workforce.
  3. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, computing jobs are some of the fastest growing and highest paying, yet women are joining this beneficial field in lower rates. STEM careers can enhance girls’ futures and reduce social inequalities.

I have spent over 19 years in my technology and software product management career, and there have been less than 10% technical women in each of the companies I’ve worked at. For most of that time, I was the only technical woman on my team, whether that was the product team or the executive team.

When I was nine, my best friend was a boy who had just received an Apple IIe, and we spent hours on his computer playing with software. I was introduced to BASIC computer programming when I was 12 at a week-long YMCA summer class. I became so interested in it, that my parents bought me an Apple IIc. I later helped start the only computer club in my middle school, but was the only girl in the club. I felt lonely, and ended up quitting the following year. When I was in high school, I felt the social pressure to not be nerdy. Plus, none of my friends were in computer or special STEM courses, so I didn’t pursue computers or technology during that time.

When I went to college, my parents felt the only suitable career for me was accounting - a stable career for a woman. They were not confident that I’d be able to get a well-paying job pursuing a technology degree. I had to fight my parents to switch my major to Management Information Systems and computer programming in my third year of college.

That choice alone was one of the best decisions I have ever made in my life. I was able to intern at 3M in my junior and senior year in college as an IT administrator, and immediately got a full-time job at 3M after I graduated. From that job onward, I’ve always had opportunities to work for innovative technology companies that have been successful. Several mentors (male and female) supported me and helped me navigate my career.  

I have been an IT Administrator, IT Consultant, Product Analyst, Product Manager, Director of Product Management, Vice President of Product Management, and a Chief Operating Officer at multiple technology companies in Austin, San Francisco, Sydney, London, and Seattle.

My technology career has afforded me the freedom and success to follow my passion in nonprofit work, and has allowed me to give back to the community using my experience and skills. I have observed that many girls are inspired by simply hearing the various stories of successful women in STEM careers, and seeing the opportunities and freedoms these careers have provided them.

Simply providing more access to STEM role models and encouraging girls helps them to pursue their dreams. Technology is core to almost every business today, and there are a variety of STEM careers available that most girls are unaware of.

Inspire more girls to pursue STEM education and careers: tell your story and mentor more girls via volunteering for organizations such as IGNITE, FabFems, GirlStart or Techbridge.

Audra is the Director of Operations and Development for IGNITE (Inspiring Girls Now In Technology Evolution), a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization founded in 1999 to promote equal access to career and technical education for underrepresented populations in the Seattle School District. IGNITE introduces school girls from grades 6-12 to technology careers via panel discussions, job shadowing, technology workshops, mentoring, and field trips throughout the school year to visit the work places of professional women in STEM careers. IGNITE has educated and empowered over 30,000 young women in middle school and high school grades to pursue education and careers in STEM. In addition to over 41 chapters formed across the United States, IGNITE has international chapters in Nigeria and Uganda. Watch a video on the IGNITE program here. Audra is also a FabFems mentor,visit her profile page to connect with her.

Join Audra at the IGNITE Spring Gala on April 29, 2016 at the Museum of Flight in Seattle at 6:00 PM to raise funds to inspire and support 1,000 girls in STEM education and careers for the 2016-17 school year.