Supporting women in higher education is critical for the workforce and the culture.
Women are making profound strides moving into positions of power, and by virtue of this shift, sectors like tech, management and policy are changing at a fundamental level. For every one man that graduates from college this year, three women will graduate. Our daughters will be running their own companies, many of them maybe as early as high school age if the current trends continue.
Take Meredith Perry, 25, the founder and CEO of uBeam, a wireless charging solution that converts electricity into ultrasound to charge remote devices. Or there is Tiffany Pham, who is 27 and founded MOGUL, a content-driven platform for women to connect professionally. While women are still outnumbered by men in the tech field, it’s worth noting that more young women are taking charge of their own projects and building their own companies.
This new influence has started to transform the former stiff shirt and tie of the corporate world. Women are often credited with bringing a more collaborative approach to their work that empowers the people around them, rather than the old competitive model. They value good work instead of long hours and they actively listen, which makes them great bosses.
How do we help the next generation of girls and women think of themselves as leaders, innovators and contributors?
One assumption that needs reexamining is the idea that girls are simply not interested in these pursuits. A recent study on fourth graders indicated that boys’ and girls’ interest in science and math is about the same, but the girls’ engagement starts to drop off sharply once they reach eighth grade. In other words, the notion that science is a man’s department starts to interfere with that interest.
Bias toward boys in the STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Math) areas is still very much a factor. In sex-segregated classes, boys are rewarded for critical thinking and analysis much more than girls. But what researchers are finding is that when girls are actively encouraged, boys also benefit.
Another thing we can do is to start young. Girls have traditionally been pushed away from trucks and gears and coaxed toward the Barbies. And there’s nothing wrong with a little dress up, but by examining the early models we impress upon, our girls can have a huge impact on their aptitudes and sense of self.
Forward thinking designers, Alice Brooks and Bettina Chen founded Roominate, a company that creates toys designed to encourage girls toward spatial development, architecture and design. By getting girls involved at the age when play is the primary tool of learning, we can spark their interest in technical construction and design.
Math and science are relatively new frontiers for women. While the gap is closing, the U.S. lags behind in developing the next wave of hard science professionals. Young women, up until very recently, never even considered going into botany, biology, chemistry, physics or engineering. High schools, colleges and universities are working to make up that gap by actively supporting women in these fields. And it appears to be working, too; according to a recent study conducted by Pew Research Center, half of the women graduating from a four-year college in 2011 credited their education with their personal and professional development, where only 37% of men saw their college education as a growth opportunity.
Having positive role models inside and outside the classroom is a crucial piece for inviting girls into these roles. Girls need concrete examples of successful women in leadership. Rather than touting the exceptions to the rules, the Amelia Earharts and the Marie Curies, girls need to see real-life examples of everyday women out there innovating, organizing and evolving the workplace. This also means having confident teachers who mirror inquiry, skill and achievement.
In fact, the White House Council on Girls and Women is actively pushing for STEM education because as women move into these fields that require higher education, the research shows that the income gap between women and men decreases. “If we’re going to out-innovate and out-educate the rest of the world, then we have to open doors to everyone,” said First Lady Michelle Obama, “We need all hands on deck. And that means clearing hurdles for women and girls as they navigate careers in science, technology, engineering and math.”
We have an incredible opportunity to harness the energies and passions of the next generation, and one way to do this is to foster a proactive approach in educating our girls. Driving this relatively untapped source of talent not only contributes to the health of the workforce and the country’s competitive edge, it also sets our young women up for better quality of life.