Why we need to encourage more young girls to get into STEM

Mar 5 2020, 5:26 pm

Written for Daily Hive by Komal Singh, an Engineering Program Manager at Google and author of the book Ara the Star Engineer.


“Mom, why are all engineers boys?”

I was totally shocked when my four-year-old daughter asked me this question. Where did she get this idea from? I started to think about the picture books she reads, my coworkers she meets, even other parents she knows. I realized that she was parsing a pattern that I had conditioned myself to ignore — when it came to engineers, all she saw were men.

And so, that same day, was born the idea of a book, that has now become Ara the Star Engineer. The story follows a young girl Ara, on a mission to discover an amazing algorithm to solve big problems. During her adventures, she meets characters based on real-life female engineers (or SHEroes as I like to call them!). Together, they answer questions ranging from coding to cupcakes, and explore the magic of computational thinking and creativity.

ara the star engineer book

Ara the Star Engineer (Photo courtesy of Google)

Girls need to see characters that look like them and hear stories of more women in tech so they can easily visualize themselves as tomorrow’s innovators. Missing characters in storybooks translate to missing leaders in boardrooms and labs. And our world needs all of them, to create an equitable workforce.

When I was growing up, a character that inspired me was Dr. Dana Scully of The X Files.  She was a FORCE. Research by the Geena Davis Institute shows that Gillian Anderson’s popular character produced a “Scully Effect.” As one of the only female STEM characters on TV in the ’90s, the study found that women who regularly watched The X-Files were more likely to express an interest in STEM, major in a STEM field in college, and work in a STEM profession.

As we celebrate International Women’s Day, here are some ways we can encourage more girls and women to choose STEM on a spectrum — the choice to have a career in this field, to apply analytical thinking in other careers of their interest, or to simply use computational thinking to optimize everyday life functions!

Explore online coding resources

There are many free resources and programs to bootstrap coding 101. CS First is a block-based computer science curriculum that teachers and students can try at home or in the classroom.

Choose kids books with diversity

Books like Ara The Star Engineer, Rosie Revere Engineer, and InterStellar Cinderella challenge the stereotypical gender roles and empower little readers to be fearless problem-solvers.

Introduce computational thinking via whimsical play

Blogs such as Hello Ruby and Little Problem Solvers provide fun activities for parents and teachers to engage kids in computer science concepts using playful techniques. This can be complemented with physical toys such as LittleBits, GoldiBlox, and Sphero.

We know that women make up half of the world’s population, and yet only 15-20% of women are in the tech workforce. Research tells us girls start to non-identify with STEM by the time they are six years old, not due to lack of intelligence or ability, but due to social conditioning and systemic biases.

We’ve made positive strides by recognizing that an inclusive workforce is the right and smart thing to have, but we still need a more holistic approach. We need “cradle to career” structures that encourage girls and minorities at every step of their journey.

As I watch my daughter grow, I know that it’s going to take more than one book, or one hackathon, or one toy to stay engaged in STEM (regardless of what her future career choice is). We need to continue to have conversations like this on days that aren’t International Women’s Day so that we’re inspiring more girls and women to become the SHEroes of tomorrow.