Here’s a conundrum: according to a report from the White House Council on Women and Girls, women who work in science, technology, engineering and mathematics-related fields (STEM) make about a third more than women in non-STEM jobs. When it comes to women and job opportunity, that should be great news, especially because the STEM workforce is expected to grow by at least 20% in the next ten years. However, women represent a mere 25% in STEM professions, and in most technical and engineering programs, they comprise under 20% of the student population. Ouch.
The reasons for a STEM gender gap are many and complex. Historically, the world of science and engineering has been a ‘boys club,’ and women have found it difficult to connect with mentors who can help them navigate from academia to a career. Then there are the theories about ‘female math anxiety,’ and the fact that often girls are steered toward humanities, rather than the sciences and mathematics. However, there are some educators and members of the tech community who are out to change this paradigm. Their method? Early engagement, via technology that girls are very familiar with -- designing apps for their cell phones and tablets.
Mobile technology is a big part of today’s students’ lives, and educators are banking that getting girls involved in designing apps for smart phones and tablets can be a gateway experience, turning them on to careers in IT fields such as computer programming. And guiding students through the business and marketing phases of launching their apps has the added advantage of developing their leadership and presentation skills; something that will serve these young women well as they progress in their academic and business careers.
One program is the Technovation Challenge, an initiative launched in 2009 to “offer young women the opportunity to participate in a “start-up company” and understand what it takes to be a high-tech entrepreneur.” Participating girls are divided into teams, assigned mentors and over a ten-week period they will not only design and program an app, they will also develop a marketing strategy for their product.
"The reason we use app development is because girls are already pretty interested in their phones," says AnnaLise Hoopes, Technovations’s director of educational and corporate partnerships for the San Francisco-based not-for-profit. "It's a very nonintimidating mode of computer science because it's something they can already relate to."
The 2010 pilot program began in Silicon Valley, where 45 girls were matched with 25 mentors. Now, two years later, the program has spread to New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Mountain View and Berkeley, CA. Girls work in teams of five, and in addition to their mentors (women entrepreneurs from the tech sector), guest lecturers attend sessions, giving advice and answering questions on everything from marketing to how to finance a start up company.
"They tell [the girls] what challenges they faced, and they really share honestly about what it takes to get to a successful place. … It's inspiring for the girls," says Hoopes.
The apps that have been developed run the gamut, including one called Life Pyramid, a healthy life-style ‘helper’ that collects information about a user’s exercise program, diet and sleep habits and sleep habits, and Tab Attack!, an app that helps users play musical instruments. And then there is IOU, an app that tracks everything from financial loans to swapped clothing.
At the end of the Technovation program, the teams present their apps at a regional competition. The winners advance to Pitch Night, a national competition where the finalists present their apps to industry pros. The winning team gets to have their app professionally produced and then marketed on Google Play.
"My hope is that they learn the process of creating a product and taking it to market just like they would as an adult entrepreneur," says Hoopes.
Other program like Technovation are springing up in schools around the country. While some are co-ed, drawing in both boys and girls, the focus of most of these programs is to bring under-represented minorities into the world of technology and entrepreneurship -- and to quote one very famous tech-savvy entrepreneur, “That’s a good thing.”