Editor's Note: This post is part of a series produced by HuffPost's Girls In STEM Mentorship Program. Join the community as we discuss issues affecting women in science, technology, engineering and math.
It starts long before women are left out of the boardroom, stall on the career ladder, or opt out of the engineering course. Girls are making choices that lead them to lean in or out of future options very early in their paths to the future, especially in the fields of technology and engineering where women are a significant minority at all levels.
In our after school programs, we ask girls to project the future: if they had to give up a role what would it be? Many respond without a moment's hesitation--they would let go of their career before the role of wife, or mother. While the choices are not mutually exclusive, the activity provides a space to talk with girls about their assumptions and their plans for the future.
We hear from girls that they don't think they can be both a computer scientist and a mother.
Some shared concerns about the demands of being a wife and a professional. This activity gives us the chance to dispel stereotypes about careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) and to discuss the rewards of having multiple identities.
A nonprofit based in Oakland, CA, Techbridge has a mission to empower girls to realize their dreams through science, technology, and engineering. We start with hands-on experiences that give girls the chance to tinker and work with tools. Projects are designed with girls in mind and build skills and confidence. In America's Next Top Robot, girls learn to program fashion-forward robots to walk the length of a runway. In Cars and Engines, girls take apart lawnmower engines, learn about four-stroke engines and get under the hood of a car, empowering them in traditionally male pursuits. Some girls show reluctance when they start these projects, but over time build confidence. They design and redesign their work and learn from failure. In the process, girls get the chance to experience what it's like being an engineer or a computer scientist.
We have seen how much the girls enjoy these hands-on experiences. What came as a surprise was to learn from focus groups that while girls enjoyed these activities they considered them more as hobbies than as career possibilities. To change this, career exploration has become a key element of Techbridge. We introduce role models who help our girls make connections between hands-on projects and careers. We have girls role-play engineering professions when working on hands-on activities. While we don't expect that every girl will become an engineer, computer programmer, or entrepreneur, we want them to have these options, and know they have the choice to "lean in" to a career in STEM.
There is a long road between middle school and the board room or executive team at Facebook. In Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg describes the actions and inactions that limit women's advancement into leadership positions. We see the beginnings of these trends in childhood; girls holding back from raising their hands, sitting back and letting boys take over science projects, or shying away from leading a group presentation. We see girls so afraid of making a mistake that they would rather go with a simple design plan than attempt a novel one that might be innovative and successful but also might fail.
For many girls in Oakland, job opportunities in Silicon Valley are a world away. Many of these girls will never have the chance to sit at the table or lean in to a high-tech career. Not unless they meet a role model who can show them why it is worth it and how they can and should lean in to a career that can make a difference in changing the world.
Role models can introduce girls to careers they never imagined. How can girls do what it takes to make their way to a leadership role at a high tech start up if they don't know what tech jobs exists? If they are getting their inspiration from TV and movies, they may have stereotypes about careers and not imagine the possibilities in engineering and technology.
Role models introduce our girls to a variety of STEM careers. They show by example how it's possible to have a rewarding job and a family. Ellen Spertus, who works at Google and teaches Computer Science at Mills College, led an activity with App Inventor with Techbridge girls at Oakland Unity High School. Ellen shared her love for her work and encouraged our girls to pursue computer science. She described how "computer science is like magic: putting together programs that command powerful computers is like casting spells". She also shared her personal story about how she and her husband share equally in caring for their daughter and home. Ellen noted how this arrangement makes it possible for her to do the work she finds so rewarding. For Ellen, there is no need to throw away roles. She encouraged the girls to think hard about this when they are entering into relationships.
Here are ideas to help girls lean in to their studies and pursue dreams of becoming tomorrow's innovators in STEM. As a role model, teacher, parent, or interested adult, we can lead by example and encourage girls to lean in to challenges and opportunities.
1. Nudge girls out of their comfort zone. For those who are uncomfortable speaking up, especially with adults, set expectations and hold girls to them. After noticing how some of our girls held back from interacting with role models on field trips, we set the rule that every girl is expected to ask at least one question. It works and girls gain confidence talking with adults.
2. Encourage girls to speak up and "fake it until you make it." Having opportunities to practice public speaking and get feedback is critical to improvement. Even the girls who are most uncomfortable and reluctant to speak up later share how the experience helped them. For example, the girl who hid behind her hair when she first joined Techbridge volunteered to give a speech at her high school graduation.
3. Encourage girls to persevere. The work of Carol Dweck highlights the importance of reinforcing kids for their effort so that they understand that success comes through effort. With a growth mindset, girls can learn to celebrate what they learn from their mistakes and not let fear of failure hold them back from trying new challenges.
4. Encourage girls to find their opportunities. Be upfront and tell girls not to wait for someone to come to them with opportunities like a summer internship. Techbridge student, Carmen Zheng, leans in. She not only jumps into opportunities that come her way through Techbridge but finds her own resources by researching on the Internet and networking. Carmen is a senior at Oakland Technical High School and a Techbridge lean-in role model.
5. Encourage girls to find their mentors and make them matter. When Jessica Wong, a Techbridge alumna, was considering changing majors to computer science, she looked for mentors who could answer her questions about courses at U.C. Berkeley. She thoughtfully prepared for the meetings and gathered the information she needed to make her decision. Jessica switched majors and in her latest email shared that she is learning Java and finding it "awesome."
6. Reflect on the messages are you sending a girl. You may tell a girl that she should "sit at the table," but if you are holding back on your own aspirations or doubt your own abilities, she may get the message that she should too. By what you do and say, you lead by example. As a parent or mentor, lean in and expand your options.
7. Most important, encourage a girl to imagine herself as the CEO of a high tech start up, the engineer who designs an innovative technology, or the chair of the board at Google. Encourage her to believe in herself and give her the confidence to achieve her ambitions. She can start small, from leading a group science project to speaking up in class. It's never too early to start practicing these important skills for her future.
How else would you mentor a girl in the STEM fields? Leave your advice below.
We encourage you to make time to be a role model to a girl and encourage her to lean in to opportunities that the high-tech industry has to offer. We want all girls to know they have the power to change the world.
Linda Kekelis, PhD, is Executive Director of Techbridge. When she was little she built furniture for her Barbie dolls with her brother's erector set. She never made the connection between tinkering and a career in engineering. In Techbridge, Linda supports role models to encourage girls to lean in to careers in technology and engineering.
Jennifer Wei, MBA, is Chief Operating Officer of Techbridge. As a woman who studied engineering and subsequently worked in male-dominated industries, she knows firsthand the challenges that women face in the climb to leadership roles. At Techbridge, she oversees the organization's operations and seeks opportunities to impact many more girls around the world.
To learn more about Techbridge, visit techbridgegirls.org.
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