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International Day of the Girl: Why Science & Math Programs Matter

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Late last year, the United Nations declared Oct. 11 the International Day of the Girl. Celebrated for the first time this month, the occasion aims to highlight the challenges girls face around the world to gain access to education and other basic rights, and empower them to advocate on their own behalf. Despite recent publications declaring the "end of men," evidence shows that continued investment in education for girls (and equality for women) is needed, right, and smart.

Studies indicate that increased education for girls leads to lower poverty rates and better health outcomes for the whole family. But gaps in access to primary education are common in developing countries, especially where families must pay fees for their children to attend. Literacy rates among girls often suffer; for example, in Afghanistan, 18 percent of girls age 15-24 are literate compared to 50 percent of boys.

In more developed countries with the capacity (or mandate) to provide basic educational equality, girls still lag behind boys, especially in their achievement in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). A 2009 study by the American Society of Engineering Education notes that undergraduate degrees from engineering schools awarded to women hit a 15-year-low. As Stephanie Coontz highlighted in a recent New York Times article, "the percentage of female electrical engineers doubled in each decade in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. But in the two decades since 1990 it has increased by only a single percentage point, leaving women at just 10 percent of the total."

Universities and industry leaders are taking measures to make the field more welcoming for young women. Most college engineering programs have diversity and outreach programs that aim to increase enrollment of women and under-represented minorities. And a recently announced pilot program, WitsOn (Women in Technology Sharing Online), matches mentors from corporations and top-ranked universities (including nearly all the UC campuses) with female students in STEM fields.

But reaching young women by the time they enter college is not soon enough. In order to increase female representation in STEM majors and graduate programs, it is essential to engage girls in related activities at K-12 levels. A few organizations have recognized this gap and created programs to address it. Microsoft's DigiGirlz Hi-Tech Camp offers workshops and presentations for high-school girls. Black Girls Code and the NSF-funded National Girls Collaborative Project support STEM programs for underserved communities.

Efforts to increase women's participation in these fields may be found not only in the United States but also internationally, even in countries that struggle to provide equality in basic education. Girls in Tech, with chapters in the United States and around the world, promotes women's innovations in technology. AkiraChix, a Nairobi-based network of mentors, aims to inspire and sustain interest in technology fields among young African women. Indeed, Africa is home to many female rising stars in technology, as a recent article noted with an allusion to Yahoo's new CEO: Who are Africa's Marissa Mayers? And multilateral programs like USAID's Women and Girls Lead Global and UN Foundation's Girl Up have been launched recently to boost girls' empowerment and access to education overall.

In my role as director of the Data and Democracy Initiative at the Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society (CITRIS) on the UC Berkeley campus, I want to encourage efforts to bring greater gender-parity to science and engineering fields. Not just because studies show that greater participation of women raises the level of collective intelligence in business teams, but because democracies deserve full participation of all their citizens. Few efforts could better serve the "interests of society" than strengthening programs for girls to explore the full range of subjects available to them. On the International Day of the Girl, consider supporting local initiatives or international organizations devoted to bolstering access to education and basic human rights for girls. Both data and democracy will improve when girls are prepared to participate fully in governance, leadership, and innovation.