About a month ago, my friend Maureen called me for advice. A young family friend, April, was entering college, and she was getting a lot of pressure to be a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) major from family and teachers. She excelled at math and science, but she loved her English classes and wanted to focus on that. Her family warned her that she would end up a poor English teacher and preferred to see her be an engineer. To them, engineering brings prosperity.
April was miserable. Math and science were fun, but they didn’t make her happy. Being an engineer sounded dreadful.
Maureen knew that I started my education as an engineer and graduated a writing/English major. She also knew that although I didn’t have a STEM degree, I worked in technology – and I may have some suggestions.
I told Maureen that current trends combine technology and communication to better engage users, prospects, and customers. Lead generation is moving to social media, as is selling, so you need to be able to understand how this all works, how the data flows and tracks, and how you can improve results. You may understand how the technology works, but if you can’t communicate well – internally or externally – you can’t engage anyone.
Why couldn’t she do both?
Not all women in STEM are happy with their decision. A report completed in 2011 explores why women left engineering.
The top five reasons women reported for deciding not to enter engineering were: They were not interested in engineering, didn’t like the engineering culture, had always planned to go into another field, did not find the career flexible enough, or wanted to start their own business. These reasons did not differ significantly across different age groups or years of graduation.
A quarter of the women reported that they left the field to spend more time with their family. Other women reported that they lost interest in engineering or developed interest in another field, they did not like the engineering culture, they did not like engineering tasks, or they were not offered any opportunities for advancement.
Not having interest in engineering/not liking engineering tasks is a passion problem.
From the moment they begin their studies, female engineers typically go for fields of study related to social issues (life sciences, natural sciences). This goes hand in hand with the fact that women in general have a greater interest in sustainable development and female engineers in particular in research and development (R&D).
Are the issues surrounding engineering culture deeper than sexism and work-life balance?
In France, CNISF surveys point to the same facts: the presence of women engineers is lower in domains directly related to production, whereas they are better represented in R&D. This of course takes us back to working conditions, to the differences between the world of manufacturing and that of the research department.
Factory operations just don’t have the same work-life flexibility as doing R&D. Have we misled women about what engineering is? Has that contributed to them leaving engineering?
We all have preferences for what we like to do:
Newborn girls prefer to look at faces while newborn boys prefer to look at mechanical stimuli (such as mobiles). When it comes to toys, a consistent finding is that boys (and juvenile male monkeys) strongly prefer to play with mechanical toys over plush toys or dolls, while girls (and female juvenile monkeys) show equivalent interest in the two. (See this for summary of this research.) These sex-linked preferences emerge in human development long before any significant socialization can have taken place.
–Denise Cummins, Why the STEM gender gap is overblown, PBS News Hour
Rather than pushing girls to play with the mechanical toys, why not present them with technology opportunities that combine toys with dolls?
A US Department of Commerce study claims that there are few women in STEM – mathematics, life sciences, engineering, computer science, physical sciences and STEM managerial positions (based on SOCs and the census).
According to other reports, the STEM situation is different:
—Women in the Sciences, Catalyst
In fact, women are represented in 50% in 3 of the 5 areas.
Other lists don’t define STEM as narrowly as the Department of Commerce and include fields such as:
- Social science (part of NSF)
- Medical/healthcare ( part of NIH)
This presents greater opportunities for women and balances their interests better, however, what’s still missing from these lists are technology roles:
- Business analysts, UX professionals, or project managers
- Education technologies – designing courseware and how people learn in different areas
- Marketing and sales technologies – social selling, CRM, social media, content marketing and SEO
- Product marketing engineer/manager – depending on the product, this can be highly technical
- Industrial design – wearables, computing and communication devices
And I’m sure the list continues.
Are we pushing girls to choose work in science, engineering and math rather than encouraging them to explore technology opportunities that embrace their interests?
Technology surrounds us – and we don’t even realize it. Our communication is digitized – phones, online chat, texting, email. Even our thermometers (Nest) and our radios (Sirius XM, Pandora) are digital. Most of us can’t leave home without our cell phones, and we can already wear them as a watch. And we are quickly losing the art of longhand because we all type – and soon, only speak.
Today there are infinite possibilities for women to combine their interests in “mechanical toys” and “dolls” in technology. Look at ecommerce, wearables or social media.
Why should women have to choose? Why should women be shamed for choosing what makes them happy?
I hope that April pursues a career that combines her love of literature and writing with her aptitude for science and math. Programming, engineering or being in the lab aren’t the only ways to be a technologist. We need more options.
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