Future of Work

The Key to Getting Girls Interested in STEM Could Be Their Teacher

By Lauraine Langreo — August 17, 2022 5 min read
Ninth graders Angela Alexy, Zoe Doyle, and Sarah Retallick use Instamorph to mold a custom phone cord holder at Pennsbury High School in Falls Township, Pa., on March 19, 2018. Bucks County schools are involving girls in STEM programs.
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One of the most influential factors that determines whether girls will pursue a career in the technology industry is having a parent or teacher who encouraged them to study computer science, according to a survey from Girls Who Code and Logitech.

While there’s a high share of women in science-related health care jobs, women continue to be underrepresented in engineering, computer science, and physical science jobs. Tech companies and K-12 schools are being asked to do their part to bridge the gap.

“In the broader tech industry, we see that gender equality remains a challenge,” said Delphine Donné, general manager and vice president of creativity and productivity at Logitech. “We want to make a difference.”

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Megan Bowen walks through the lesson plan for the day during class at Salem Academy Charter School in Salem, Mass., on April 25, 2022.
Megan Bowen walks through the lesson plan for the day during class at Salem Academy Charter School in Salem, Mass., on April 25, 2022.
Nathan Klima for Education Week

“The objective is simple: inspire more girls and young women to join and stay in STEM. But first, we had to understand what women currently experience and what successful women have done to get where they are today,” she added.

When asked who had the greatest influence on their decision to pursue a career in tech, 60 percent of adult female respondents said a family member or a friend and 50 percent said a teacher.

The survey, published Aug. 9, was conducted by market research firm Ipsos from Feb. 7-18 and asked 400 adults working in the technology and IT industries about their paths to those careers.

It found four key factors that have helped women become successful in a career in technology: having early influences, being passionate about computers and how things work, being able to make a meaningful contribution to society, and having access to communities of support. It also found that many men are unaware of the inequality women face in the tech workplace.

Having early encouragement is key

Women’s interest in computer science mostly starts in high school, according to the report. Women were more than twice as likely to say they developed an interest in computer science during high school (38 percent) than during college (18 percent) or middle school (18 percent).

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Hispanic teenage girl writing and using computer
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This was true for Tiffany Agiri, 20, a senior at Kennesaw State University in Georgia studying computer science and information technology.

“I originally did not want to pursue a career in technology, and I thought I would go to school for psychology, Spanish, or nursing,” said Agiri, whose interest in STEM developed during the last semester of high school. “It was not until I met my first mentor, Dr. Isi, that I became more open to the idea. She was the first woman in my life who looked like me that I saw pursuing tech, and with her guidance and encouragement, I began to pursue tech, too.”

But for Ally Zendejas, 17, a senior at Cox Mill High School in Concord, N.C., her interest in STEM started before high school.

“I have always really loved the numbers side of things, so in middle school I took a few coding classes,” Zendejas said. “It was through my computer teacher that I learned about the academy of information technology that was offered at my high school. Once I heard about it and learned that it combined so many things I loved: art through digital design and numbers/problem solving through coding and web development, I knew I had to apply.”

I was not high-performing in high school. I did not know any aerospace engineers. I was not good at math. I was downright allergic to it.

For other women, their interest starts during college or later. That’s true for Aisha Bowe, founder and CEO of tech companies STEMBoard and Lingo and a former aerospace engineer for NASA.

“I was not high-performing in high school. I did not know any aerospace engineers,” Bowe said. “I was not good at math. I was downright allergic to it.”

But in community college, Bowe’s female pre-algebra teacher, an electrical engineer for Ford Motor Company, inspired her to go into a STEM career.

“She was the first person that I’d worked with in an academic setting, where she was determined to teach me in a way that I could learn,” Bowe said. “And as a result, I really felt comfortable. She was so excited about engineering and to see her enthusiasm made me start to think ‘oh, wait a second, maybe this is fun.’”

Bowe said her father also played a significant role because he was getting his engineering degree almost at the same time that she was, and together, they would cheer each other on.

Gender norms are still a barrier

Some girls, like 17-year-old Pallavi Mylar, a senior at Enloe Magnet High School in Raleigh, N.C., have parents who work in the technology industry and have the role models that make it easier to visualize themselves in that field. But for many women, it’s hard to find that inspiration to pursue a tech career because they don’t have a role model and there’s a perception that the technology industry is for men. Women (12 percent) are less likely than men (18 percent) to be inspired by a real scientist, the report found.

“I was apprehensive knowing that tech is very male-dominated, and other than [my mentor], at the time, no one else in my life envisioned me in tech,” Agiri said. “It took about a year of her encouragement for me to see myself as a technologist.”

The lack of gender diversity in tech, Agiri added, is because “men are often conditioned from childhood to pursue STEM disciplines, whereas women are not,” which means “women do not envision themselves as computer scientists, engineers, et cetera, because they are not given the encouragement or support they need when they are younger.”

Zendejas agreed: “Even, I, at a young age, believed that the tech field was just boys coding at computers, but it really is so much more than that.”

Agiri, Bowe, Zendejas, and Mylar said schools need to show girls from an early age that they belong in tech and other STEM fields. Bowe suggested incorporating more partnerships with STEM companies and organizations and have students shadow people who work in the tech industry.

“I don’t think that it’s enough to present the subject,” Bowe said. “I think it’s the application which is really exciting.”

See also

Ninth graders Darci Hamer, left, and Avery Stimmel make small adjustments to the path of their robot at Pennsbury High School in Falls Township, Pa., on March 19, 2018. Bucks County schools are involving girls in STEM programs.
Ninth graders make small adjustments to the path of their robot at Pennsbury High School in Falls Township, Pa.
David Garrett/Bucks County Courier Times via AP

Agiri, Zendejas, and Mylar—all of whom have had internships at tech companies such as Lenovo and Microsoft—agreed that their experiences during those internships helped open their eyes to the many job opportunities possible at a tech company.

They also suggested that schools provide more STEM classes or incorporate STEM activities in class so that they’re aware of the industry.

“It is great for girls to take CTE [Career Technical Education] classes in high school, but at this point many girls already have in their head that the stereotype about it just being boys coding all day is true,” said Zendejas. “If girls have access to coding games, web design, and tech classes in middle/elementary school, they will hopefully fall in love with it and see that they do belong in the field.”

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