The Art of Getting Girls Into STEM

Girls still aren’t getting into STEM. Despite so many headlines, initiatives, and investments, only 18% of U.S. computer science college graduates were women (U.S. Department of Education). That number was 37% in 1984. This can’t just be the effect of girls not being encouraged enough in math class.

The New York Times published a fascinating retrospective on what happened during that key period of the mid- to late-1980s and the decades that followed. When PCs came into the home, they became the domain of boys relative to social norms — and boys, therefore, had a leg up when entering university programs. The past 30 years have also been the backdrop for the evolution of a “tech nerd” stereotype, fueled by TV and movies. When many people think of a software coder, they envision a guy who hasn’t slept or showered for days, with few friends and no romantic life, maniacally pounding on his keyboard as he drinks Red Bull.

This stereotype is ridiculous, of course. The software developers I know are some of the most well-rounded and interesting people I know. But not enough of them are women. Beyond refreshing the tech industry’s image and early socialization for girls to see tech as their domain, what else can we do?

Research released last month may be part of the missing link: The journal PNAS outlined a study of more than 300,000 high school students in 64 countries. Their finding? Girls are equally good at math as boys! (Many of us knew that already.) However, girls are even better at verbal skills, relative to their male peers who lag behind. Whatever the reason for that relative advantage — socialization at home, encouragement from teachers, etc. — this could be the missing link of addressing the girls-in-STEM problem.

If girls see they’re better at reading or writing than male peers in their class, they will naturally invest more energy there — it’s rewarded in good grades and a sense of accomplishment. Equal skill level in math may not feel as appealing, especially against the backdrop of societal norms which definitely aren’t equal. When I reflect on my own academic experience, this was true for me. I was good at math and science, but not as good as I was in the verbal subjects. So I self-selected out of pursuing a STEM field before I ever got to college.

This insight changes the dialogue in a fundamental way because it means that maybe girls aren’t running away from STEM, they are running toward something else that engages them and makes them feel successful. In order to change the equation for the next generation, we need to do a better job of demonstrating how girls’ interests and strengths can give them an advantage.

Nonprofits like Girls Who Code and Technovation are doing a terrific job exposing girls to the human side of technology, but there are so many other things we could collectively be doing to change the gender equation. For example, this article about UC Berkeley describes a success story when the school reframed “Introduction to Symbolic Programming” as “The Beauty and Joy of Computing,” inspired by a quote from a famous (male) IBM engineer. There are other great examples of innovating the higher education experience for women, even beyond STEM. This one about Harvard Business School is my favorite.

As a tech industry and society, we own a big part of this dynamic, too. We need to share the joy of solving customer problems, the creativity of product invention, and that strong verbal skills and creative thinking are core assets for success in “techie” fields, too. If we can break down stereotypes and change the conversation, we might start to build the pipeline of women who see themselves as not only qualified but as having a distinct advantage. High-paying and challenging career options would open up to them, and companies like Adobe would have an even stronger pool of talent to move our innovation forward. Maybe it’s time to put a bit more “art” into the science of reaching our young people.