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Eileen Sweeney Headshot
Leslie Collins Headshot

A Woman, an Idea and a Network Can Change the World

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"You've come a long way baby" -- a familiar axiom used often to underscore the strides women are making on several socioeconomic fronts -- applies today to the marked rise recorded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) over the past few decades in the number of American girls and women with aspirations or careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). For instance, high school girls now earn more credits in math and science than boys, and women comprise nearly half of all science graduates with bachelor's degrees, the NSF says.

And while women still have a long way to go to match the number of men in several STEM disciplines (only 10 percent of the nation's engineers are women), they can tap a growing roster of significant allies and mentors as they climb the career ladder. There also are a growing number of networks that help encourage, educate, develop, mentor and advance females in STEM professions. These include the International Network of Women Engineers and Scientists; the National Institute of Women in Technology; the American Association of University Women; Society of Women Engineers; and Institute for Women in Trades, Technology and Science, among many others.

STEM Networks Assist Girls, Women

No longer are women with dreams of becoming a university math professor, a prominent computer scientist or an aerospace engineer, on their own in their career pursuits. They can count on change agents such as former astronaut Sally Ride and Nobel Prize winners (for medicine) Elizabeth Blackburn and Carol Greider, who are actively involved in helping inspire the next generation of scientists, engineers and mathematicians. They credit mentors and networking opportunities for helping them in their career achievements.

Our future depends on developing a pipeline of STEM talent to solve major problems -- from our crumbling infrastructure to combating major diseases and developing clean technologies -- and women comprise half of that talent pool. Recognizing that America lags in developing the next generation of scientific talent to keep the U.S. competitive in the global marketplace, the federal government is also making a greater investment in STEM. In November, President Obama launched a major campaign, called Educate to Innovate, to encourage students, especially girls and women, to take a stronger interest in STEM.

Women from business, nonprofits and academia immediately signed on to the effort, serving to illustrate the critical importance of organizational networks for women. One of them, the nonprofit National Girls Collaborative Project, is assisting 2,500 STEM-related programs in 28 states and plans a National Collaboration Conference in May to further address gender equity in the STEM disciplines.

Enter the Global Marathon By, For and About Women in Engineering

Beginning at noon (EDT) on Wednesday, March 10, until noon (EDT) Thursday, March 11, middle- and high-school girls, university women, and young and experienced women engineers on six continents will come together for the sixth annual Global Marathon By, For and About Women in Engineering and Technology, a worldwide forum that aims to educate and inspire women and girls interested in science, math and technology about pursuing a career in engineering and its specific disciplines.

The event, sponsored by National Engineers Week Foundation and supported by a variety of corporations including the Motorola Foundation, features continuous conversations with women engineers, including Ms. Ride, the first U.S. woman in space. Pre-college girls, for instance, can discuss online how their engineering experiences bring ideas to life or learn how to develop an application for the DROID by Motorola smartphone from a Motorola intellectual-property leader. Meanwhile, professional women can network and participate in educational sessions on leadership and mentorship.

Building and Sustaining Connections Through Networks

The Global Marathon is all about making connections and creating networks. The 2010 theme, "Launching Tomorrow," resonates because women -- through their work today in STEM fields -- are developing innovations and solutions to solve tomorrow's problems from climate change and famine to infrastructure and disease. The event serves as a call to action to invest in many more initiatives and networks that will build and sustain the movement. Without more opportunities for women to connect with each other, we will be unable to create long-lasting change.

The all-day event also underscores that women STEM leaders have the power -- and responsibility -- to pave the way for the next generation. They also can be change agents and showcase how science, technology, math and engineering not only can unlock fresh discoveries but also release the minds of young women to new possibilities. When that happens, magical things happen. Girls look at the world around them with inquisitive eyes. They recognize what opportunities and promise await them as they move forward into the future.

All it takes is one woman and one idea to innovate -- but it takes her network to make the innovation come to life.

To learn more and participate in the 2010 Global Marathon, visit www.globalmarathon.net.

Eileen Sweeney is director of the Motorola Foundation and Leslie Collins is executive director of the National Engineers Week Foundation.