Building a Talent Pipeline for Girls in STEM

This past February, I spent time in San Francisco and Silicon Valley, meeting with several top tech firms, to explore how I could leverage my role as a Dean at Columbia University to support talent in the industry. My intention was not to talk about diversity, but it quickly became clear that the gender gap in STEM was of imminent concern and an emerging top priority at each company.

There is endless opportunity in the U.S. market to build careers in STEM-related fields. President Obama recently announced $4 billion in funding over the next seven years for K-12 computer science programs—which represents one of the largest education initiatives during his tenure in office.

There is currently a pressing need to improve STEM education to bridge the gender gap—particularly to better serve minority women. In 2011, 26% of all people employed in STEM fields were women, and 74% were men. Only 2% of employed engineers and scientists are Hispanic and Black women, though they make up 8% and 6% of the population, respectively. Some of the country’s top tech firms recently released data on diversity—women hold anywhere from 17 to 30% of leadership jobs at these companies and only 13 to 24% of technical jobs.

Columbia University’s School of Professional Studies has developed a national pre-collegiate program to address the gap: the Columbia Girls in STEM Initiative. The School, along with corporate partners and community organizations, is piloting programs in STEM education for girls from underrepresented populations in three cities this summer: San Francisco, Miami, and New York. The high school students learn core competencies in the STEM fields, develop leadership skills, and establish mentoring relationships with senior female executives. Workplaces will, in turn, use this opportunity to evolve, and attract and retain the confident, capable employee base they want and need.

Microsoft’s San Francisco office hosted students from KIPP: San Francisco Bay Academy and other public and charter schools in the area in June, and the girls heard guest speakers from women in leadership roles at Microsoft and GoPro. The iPrep Academy in Miami is hosting students next week from across the Miami-Dade school system, and the girls' guest speakers will visit from the Miami Heat and the Miami Dolphins. In August, Goldman Sachs’ New York headquarters will host a group of students from the Harlem Children’s Zone, Madison Square Boys and Girls Club, and the Achievement First Charter School.

There are three strategic approaches this new program advances, and I encourage similar educational programs to consider:

  1. Introduce female STEM role models and leadership;

  2. Build a bridge between K-12 and college; and

  3. Connect the STEM classroom to the real world.

Introduce female STEM role models and leadership

Research carried out by the Girl Scouts of America found that, despite high interest in STEM from girls (and from African-American and Hispanic girls in particular), several factors stand in the way of their pursuing further education and careers in STEM fields. One of the major findings was that there were too few female role models in these fields. Columbia’s program will offer not only the opportunity to learn STEM subjects from female professors, it will also invite women who are actively working in technical leadership positions at top companies to speak directly with the girls about what they do. Giving girls the chance to see women who are succeeding in STEM fields makes it more likely that they will pursue jobs in those areas.

Besides being able to see women STEM leaders, it’s important that girls are also able to see themselves as leaders. Columbia’s program includes leadership training sessions that will instill confidence and allow girls to pursue challenging careers in STEM fields.

Build a bridge between K-12 and college

Greater equality in STEM needs to start before college—as the disparity at that level is already great. Fewer than 20% of engineering and computer science bachelor’s degrees were awarded to women in 2011. For young women, and particularly for lower-income young women, ensuring greater access to STEM careers is a matter of improving the quality of STEM education at the K-12 level and also making a stronger connection between education at the high school level and college courses. If girls are more familiar with what it’s like to study STEM in college at a younger age, more of them will be interested in choosing these majors. And to better prepare these girls for higher education in general, Columbia’s program includes coursework on how to succeed in college.

Connect the STEM classroom to the real world

Another reason girls choose to study STEM subjects less frequently is that it can be difficult to see how the topics studied in the classroom would actually apply in a real-world STEM career. Schools need to focus more on the practical applications of these subjects so that it is clear just how this knowledge can translate into career success.

Students are spending each day participating in a rigorous, practical, academic program modeled after Columbia’s other high school programs. In the course “Introduction to Computer Science,” for example, students dive into hands-on programming in Python and C++ and produce a game-based product at the end of the week. In “Girls Leadership” sessions, teams of students create prototypes of STEM-related technologies or processes that solve a community or world issue.

The core of improving women’s representation in STEM fields has to be increasing access to STEM education for girls and improving the quality of that education, allowing them to envision themselves doing well in college and the work world beyond.

Improving the access to and quality of STEM education for girls won’t completely solve the complex issues at hand, and it won’t make things equal overnight. In the long term, though, it is the key to increasing equality and a competitive edge in one of the most important business sectors for the future. With greater access, skilled instruction, more role models, and a connection between K-12 education, universities, and the business world, we’ll see a stronger, more equal STEM sector.