We always tell our children that they could be anything they want to be.
In today's digital era when STEM jobs are often referred to as jobs of the future, the need to get more girls in STEM is more urgent than ever. Companies of all types are rapidly growing their technical capabilities – demand for advanced IT and programming skills is said to grow by as much as 90 per cent over the next 15 years.
However, too many girls are held back by stereotypes and social norms which influences their choices in the subjects they choose to study and the careers they choose to pursue – especially in STEM disciplines.
Fortunately, there are girls who remained defiant – thanks to their own sheer will, their drive and perhaps an encouraging parent, teacher or role model – they are diving head-first into the world of STEM and not letting anyone tell them "no".
Following our Moms Who Tech and Men We Trust interview series, we're featuring our leaders of tomorrow – girls who have found their passion in STEM and are giving it all they've got. By sharing their struggles and experience leading to their choice of study, we hope our community would leave inspired and hopeful for a more equal and sustainable society for all women. We hope you'll stand with us and root for these future stars.
Finding her true calling
On a whim, Wendy Zhang took an introductory programming course in her last year of high school in Shanghai – and had way more fun than she expected. She kept the eye-opening experience in the back of her mind, but when it came to enrolling in a major at university, she never considered selecting anything computer related.
She had planned to earn a degree in life sciences at University of Toronto in Canada thinking it would offer the most attractive career options, but after a year of classes, she finally realized the significance of the spark that had ignited in her during the programming course.
"Fortunately, I didn't have to declare my major until second year, so I was able to take a couple of computer science courses during my first year – and my interest grew immensely. I was completely fascinated by the subject," Wendy told Ladies who Tech.
She was willing to pour hours of time and effort into her computer science coursework – entirely out of interest. But here was something that hindered her from making the decision to change her major.
"I was rather terrible at math. Ever since junior high, my math grades weren't the best – so I had doubts. I asked for advice from my professors, family and peers about which path I should take, and they all said the same thing: 'If you love computer science, do it. If you’re bad at math, practice,'" she said. "So I made up my mind and worked extra hard.”
And her hard work paid off. Wendy excelled in all her math courses and was successfully accepted at U of T's double major program – Bioinformatics and Computational Biology and Computer Science.
"Computer science is all about problem-solving and innovation. I think it is this process of continuous thinking and creation, and the sense of accomplishment brought about by the results, that gave me great motivation to further my studies in computer science," Wendy said.
"I remember it was a Sunday afternoon and I had been spending several hours on a really difficult math problem. Suddenly, I figured out the answer – it was a magical moment and I've never felt happier – even more than when I got my IELTS results and university admission letter!" she recalled.
“Teach girls to be brave, not perfect”
So far, the gender ratio in Wendy's computer science courses had been quite balanced – much to her surprise.
"Due to the traditional stereotyping of women in Chinese families and the serious imbalance between men and women in some majors in some universities in China, many occupations in China have long been gender labelled," Wendy said.
This phenomenon reminded Wendy a TED Talk she saw by Reshma Saujani, the founder and CEO of Girls Who Code, a non-profit organization that aims to close the gender gap in STEM fields and encourage girls to explore computer programming.
At the age of 33, Saujani realized she wanted to something truly brave for the first time in her life – to run for US Congress in 2010. She suffered a humiliating defeat, but said it was the best 10 months of her life.
"So many women I talk to tell me that they gravitate towards careers and professions that they know they're going to be great in," she said. "Most girls are taught to avoid risk and failure. We're taught to smile pretty, get As, be perfect. On the other hand, most boys are taught to pay rough, take risks and be courageous.”
And it's true. In a study published just last month in research journal Science, New York University researchers discovered that the reason there are more undergraduate men than women majoring in physics, engineering and computer science is not because men are higher achievers.
It's because men with very low high-school GPAs in math and science and very low SAT math scores were choosing these STEM majors just as often as women with much higher math and science scores.
Other studies also show that men apply for a job when they meet only 60 per cent of the qualifications, but women apply only if they meet 100 per cent of them.
"This bravery deficit is why women are underrepresented in STEM, in C-suits, in boardrooms, in Congress," she added. "Women are being left behind in computing and tech jobs – meaning our economy is being left behind on all the innovation and problems women would solve if they were socialized to be brave instead of socialized to be perfect.”
Empowering girls to succeed in STEM
"I used to think that my poor math grades was a given. After all, I hear it all the time: 'Boys are better in science and math,'" she said. "So I didn't strive to improve.”
But during her freshman year, she discovered that she can do better. "I was able to solve the same questions using the same amount of time as the boys in my class if I worked hard enough. I gained a lot of confidence," she said.
Wendy was one of the lucky ones to realize early on in life that she can indeed find the strength to embrace and tackle a challenge. And this mindset is something that must be instilled in girls if we want to encourage them to pick STEM.
"Our society teaches girls to be perfect, but it doesn't teach them how to be brave," she said.
First and foremost is to correct the mindset of "science is for boys and arts is for girls" – and this is for both teachers and parents. The myth of the math brain is one of the most self-destructive ideas in education – research shows no innate cognitive biological differences between men and women in math.
So, at school, don't push girls to just analyze poetry and boys to conduct experiments; similarly, at home, don't push girls to just bake and boys to fix a bike. Present them with equal learning opportunities across all subjects and hold them to the same standards.
Secondly, increase the number of STEM mentors and role models to help build young girls' confidence that they can success in STEM. Girls who have an encouraging parent or mentor who pushed them to "stick with it" are more likely to stay in STEM.
At the same time, interventions to improve gender equity need to become more nuanced with respect to student achievement, according to the NYU study. Barriers must be eliminated to allow average and lower achieving girls into the field, too, not just high achieving girls.
Having more women in computer science can correct society's bias view of the field, Wendy believes, and build up women's confidence from within. Raising the profiles of women already working in STEM fields and giving them an opportunity to interact with young girls can also have a powerful effect.
"It is heartening to meet and know many confident and talented female seniors within my university's computer science department, who have taken the brave step of pursing their dreams," she said.
"For those who are still considering to switch fields to computer science, it's never too late to take the first step, as long as you have the curiosity and passion," she added.
Starting from now, encourage our girls to practice the "brave, not perfect” model. It is never too late to begin being brave.
At Ladies Who Tech, we believe education is an engine to women's empowerment and the foundation for a future of success. We hope that through connecting women in STEM through workshops, conventions and events, companies and organizations will leave inspired to enact changes that are more inclusive of women. Let's all work toward building a better future where our daughters can aspire to be whoever they want to be without barriers!