Meighan STONE: I think that girls and women have been told that STEM means you have to be good at math, and you hear a lot of girls or women saying, I’m just not good at math. What does that mean? And it turns out STEM, coding, you know, building tech, creating apps does not require that you like high school algebra, we have to understand that the field is so much broader than just am I good at math or not. That’s just not true. We have to tear it down.
STEM. Science, technology, engineering and MATH. It’s one of those terms that gets tossed around a lot. It seems like schools, colleges, and nonprofits everywhere are churning out initiatives to do a better job of teaching kids STEM skills. But despite all these resources, the United States and the rest of the world are still doing a really bad job of teaching STEM to young girls. The cost of failure could be devastating, especially in the long term.
And it might be because we’ve been looking at STEM from the wrong angle all along. It’s not really about technical skills, it’s about recognizing and solving problems in new ways.
I’m Gabrielle Sierra and this is Why It Matters. Today, how the world’s narrow view of STEM is leaving girls out.
Rachel VOGELSTEIN: STEM skills are really required for the workforce of the future. There are new technologies that are dramatically transforming work and the global economy.
This is Rachel Vogelstein. Rachel leads the Women and Foreign Policy Program here at the Council. She’s also a professor of gender and foreign policy at Georgetown Law School. I sat down with her and her colleague Meighan Stone together. You’ll be hearing from Meighan in a bit.
VOGELSTEIN: In fact, many of the children who are starting primary school right now, this fall, will eventually work in jobs that do not even currently exist. So the demand for critical thinking and for STEM skills in particular really outpaces the education and the training that’s available, particularly in the developing world. But why is this a women’s issue? The rise of new technologies, we’re finding, is exacerbating existing gender gaps, in developing countries in particular. So we know that women are at risk because many of the jobs that they perform are likely to become automated in the future.
70 percent of garment manufacturing jobs in Southeast Asia are held by women. And these types of jobs are very likely to be taken over by machines. That means that without new skills these women may not be able to work. Examples like this are really common.
VOGELSTEIN: Women are also already at a disadvantage in terms of access to and use of technology. So there are about two hundred million fewer women than men with access to mobile phones in the developing world. And there are about three hundred million fewer women than men who are actually connected to the internet in the developing world.
Just think of how much time you spend on your phone and on the Internet. Probably too much. Still, our phones let us look things up that we don’t understand, get around our city, call friends, apply for jobs. Without digital access, women fall further behind every day. And if the basics are that bad, it’s no wonder that women in the developing world have a hard time becoming scientists and engineers.
STONE: So you see worldwide that women account for just 35 percent of students enrolled in higher education STEM subjects. And by the end of that education and college, they only make up about 3 percent of ICT or STEM graduates globally.
So here’s Meighan Stone. She’s a senior fellow at the Women and Foreign Policy program at the Council, and also the former president of the Malala Fund. Meighan and Rachel work together all the time, and just published a report on STEM education in the developing world.
STONE: So we’re losing women all along the way. So what’s the answer? How can we start when they’re girls? How can we start integrating this kind of education into the classroom when they’re younger and start talking to girls about these skills, making sure they know how to use computers, or have access to mobile phones, or at least are getting, you know, adequate skills training that’s going to prepare them for a modern workforce, because education is meant to prepare you not just for, you know, the glory of what education means, but to actually get a good job, right? To get the ability to have economic equality and empowerment.
Reese WITHERSPOON: 0:46 Ladies and gentlemen, I think we are in a cultural crisis, in every field, in every industry. Women are underrepresented and underpaid in leadership positions.
As always, the fabulous Reese Witherspoon is right. The domino effect of not including women and girls early on is really clear. It starts with missing out on education and ends with missing out on income, financial independence, and a seat at the table.
VOGELSTEIN: I think it’s important to recognize that this is an issue that is a problem not only in the developing world, but also in the developed world.
VOGELSTEIN: So take the United States, for example, where we happen to be sitting right now. The gender gap in computer science is actually getting worse.
SIERRA: Why would that be?
VOGELSTEIN: Well, we see that this drop-off actually happens well before the university years. So today 66 percent of female students aged six to twelve are enrolled in some type of computer science program. Sounds pretty good, you know, well more than half, close to two-thirds. But only 32 percent of girls are enrolled once you get to ages thirteen to seventeen. And by the time you get to college, you have only 4 percent of college first-years who are female enrolled in these programs. So you can see there’s a dramatic decline from the earliest years, that obviously affects, who ultimately participates in these fields, which are not only the fields of the future, but they also happen to be some of the most well-paying fields.
66 percent, then 32 percent, and finally just four percent. Imagine a room filled with college first-years who are interested in computer science. Everyone is excited, talking about their hometowns and their new friends. Now imagine that just a few of those students are women, probably not standing near each other, looking out at a sea of guys. It would be easy for them to feel like they wandered into the wrong building, into the wrong major, and maybe into the wrong career path.
Megan SMITH: Yeah, we choose culturally what we apply technology and science to.
This is Megan Smith. That’s right, we have three guests on this episode and they’re all awesome women. Megan served as the Chief Technology Officer of the United States and Assistant to the President under Barack Obama. She was also a vice president at Google, former CEO of Planet Out, co-founder of the Malala Fund, and is currently the CEO of shift7. Whew.
SMITH: And then because of the biases, people who have interest in those areas it just keeps self-reinforcing. Oh, let’s work on STEM. So let’s do a robot program for the children, right? Why? Why? Are all children interested in robots? Not all children are interested in robots. But they’re all interested in something. And so what is that the kids are interested in that we could use STEM to solve a problem that they could, you know, go on the same path of apprentice, journey, mastery that they do for writing? You know, you don’t start in kindergarten writing an essay but, you know, a couple letters, and then words, and then eventually by the time you’re in high school you’re writing interesting essays, right?
They’ve been taught, oh, STEM is just for these topics, or it’s boring, or you’re not going to be good at it because it’s only for certain people who are magically geniuses about it. That’s just not true. We just teach it in a way that’s interesting to certain people, and we teach it in a way that’s super boring or intimidating to other people. And it’s completely unnecessary.
Michelle OBAMA: 14:30 We have to open doors to everyone, we can’t afford to leave anyone out, we need all hands on desk and that means clearing hurdles for women and girls as they navigate careers in science, technology, engineering, and math.
Okay story time. So I was in the third grade when I decided that I hated math. I actually remember the exact moment. So I was standing at the chalkboard, unable to figure out an equation and I was told I couldn’t sit down until I did. I burst into tears and that was that. To this day I get anxiety while calculating tips. My discomfort with math led me to believe that I just wasn’t meant for classes or jobs that require STEM skills. And time and again I’ve heard other women express a similar assumption.
But what if I had been taught to look at math, and STEM in general, from a wider angle?
SIERRA: And you think that if we go into schools and teach this in a more broad way, applying it to other fields, women would be more interested in STEM fields overall?
SMITH: Everybody would be more interested. It’s interesting because we had done a study when I worked at Google about what would help people come to STEM, what works, and who was not coming. And we found there’s really four to five things that attract someone to STEM. One is they understand that it’s related to things they’re interested in. Another is that someone encourages them, the person doesn’t have to be technical. Another is that they see people who look like them, who do this. And the key one is that they actually do it. Like, practice makes permanent. So if you don’t do it, it always becomes something other people do. The last one of this is community. You know, just that science and technology is a community experience.
Reshma SAUJANI: 3:32 Bravery deficit is why women are underrepresented in STEM, in c-suites, in board rooms, in congress, and pretty much everywhere we look.
It seems like there is a lot we could be doing to get girls to opt in to stem. But we also have to think about the forces that are pushing them out - not just in the U.S. but around the world.
VOGELSTEIN: It turns out that most countries have laws or policies on the books that make it harder for women to work, and in some cases to go to school.
Here’s Rachel Vogelstein and Meighan Stone.
VOGELSTEIN: We actually have an index here called the Women’s Workplace Equality Index that ranks 189 countries based on how level the legal playing field is for women at work. And we find that no country has a level legal playing field for women, again, including here in the United States. We have calculated that over one hundred countries have at least one gender-based job restriction. That can be anything from limiting the number of hours that women can work, to the types of jobs that they can hold. And certainly we see some of those limits apply in STEM fields, or fields related to machinery, for example. We know when it comes to education that in eighteen countries primary education is not free or compulsory. And that has a disproportionate effect on girls. And we also know that in the workplace women continue to face discrimination. And that’s as true in STEM fields as it is in others. In fact, take an issue like sexual harassment, an issue that we are talking about here in the United States and around the world. Given the challenges here, consider the fact that in fifty-nine countries globally there are no legal prohibitions on sexual harassment in the workplace whatsoever. So there are many barriers, from a legal perspective, that inhibit women’s ability to participate in STEM fields, or even to get a STEM education in the first place.
Laws that keep women out of STEM fields, schools, and the workforce as a whole, are pretty black and white obstacles. If you find a way to change the law, you open up the opportunities. But some of the other barriers women and girls face are less obvious.
STONE: You know, culturally there’s just norms that put up blocks to girls. And this could be expectations around, you know, doing unpaid labor at home. It could be simple discrimination against girls. It could even be, you know, laws or practices around child marriage that result in girls not completing their secondary education. So there’s lots of barriers that keep girls from even getting into the classroom. If they can get in the classroom, and they want to have access to technology, some other concerns come up where families are worried. They’re worried about their daughters and their safety online. They’re worried about who they’re talking to.
SIERRA: It sounds like these barriers, though, are very much interchangeable, in that they’re very linked. It doesn’t sound like you can just, you know, address the legal issue without addressing the cultural issue.
VOGELSTEIN: That’s exactly right. They are intertwined and if we want to make in-roads in this area we need to not only reform the laws that inhibit women’s ability to participate in STEM fields and education, we also need to make sure that there’s a structure in place that facilitates access to education for girls, and STEM education in particular, and that we address some of the cultural norms that are inhibiting the ability of girls and women to participate in these fields.
Alexis SCOTT: 0:49 I am an educator and entrepreneur, an engineer, I’m a mathematician, an analyst, I am a manager to a team of cybersecurity engineers, I am all of these things, but when I ask you to see me, is that what you see?
Cultural barriers can be tough to identify and hard to control. The images that women and girls see of themselves, the roles they play on television and in film, the way they are treated by their families and friends. Remember that mostly male auditorium? We see this uneven split all the time. Every time we watch a movie or catch up on a TV show there it is, a room full of all-male coders, tech investors, or lab workers. These images and assumptions worm their way into our minds, and they can close the door on STEM as easily as an unjust law. It’s something Megan Smith thinks about often.
SMITH: A lot of times what you see on TV, videos, et cetera, movies, tell you what’s true, right? So in family TV, it’s fifteen to one boy programmers to girl programmers shown by our colleagues who write these stories.
SIERRA: Oh, wow.
SMITH: And it’s worse for race. So what’s happening is our Hollywood colleagues and others in media are taking their stereotypes, and putting them on screen, and reinforcing it back. So as children watch TV they say, oh, the boys do this and the girls don’t, which is untrue. In fact, the first person to ever suggest coding and computer science, this idea of an algorithm that would be a generalized algorithm, is Ada Lovelace around the time that Darwin wrote.
We all learn who Darwin was. Not so much for Ada Lovelace. And that’s a huge part of the problem. It’s not just that young girls don’t see women engaged in STEM fields on television, it’s that our history books generally don’t tell the story of what women have already done in these fields. The way female scientists and mathematicians have shaped and saved the world.
SMITH: One time I was taking President Obama to work on a coding project that we were doing with some young people. And Prince William had just left the Oval Office. And I said, you know, sir, what you and I are about to do is related to Prince William. And he said, how’s that? I said, well, the Duchess of Cambridge, her great aunt and grandmother were codebreakers at Bletchley Park. He said, really? And I said, yeah, there’s a movie. He said, I just saw it you know, the movie Imitation Game about the codebreakers at Bletchley Park. And if you reflect on what that is, this is the team that cracked the Nazi Enigma codes using elite mathematics. They’re credited with saving eleven million lives and shortening World War II by two years with elite math. And I said, sir, you know, Alan Turning and Joan Clarke, who are depicted in the movie are real. One of the things most people don’t know is that two-thirds of the team at Bletchley were women. And he said, the movie definitely doesn’t show that. History gets cropped. And the fact of the diversity — I mean, even if you think about this, right? What were the Nazis up to? They were trying to destroy diversity, and diversity beat them. Right? So we have to know the true history that women and men have done this work forever.
SIERRA: Right. like, when we’re learning about World War II, we are not learning that female mathematicians changed the course of events.
SMITH: Yes, together with the men. The men and the women worked together, always, and we always have. And we need to uncrop that history and find those hidden figures, because the further back you can look, the farther forward you will see, is what Churchill said. And if you don’t know your history, you can’t see how to include everyone.
If all of this seems too abstract, there’s another important reason to start getting more girls into STEM - cold hard cash.
STONE: If you want to make an economic argument, it’s fine if you don’t agree with us on the human rights argument. We’re ready with an economic argument. And that’s that, you know, this is going to foster serious economic growth, which any world leader should be seriously interested in.
VOGELSTEIN: I think that’s exactly right. I mean, the link between girls’ education and economic growth is quite clear. The World Bank has found that women and girls could add up to $30 trillion in the global economy if girls completed secondary education.
STONE: I think you should say that number again.
SIERRA: Yeah, with a T?
VOGELSTEIN: It’s with a T - $30 trillion.
STONE: We put that in a document and one of our colleagues was, like, we think that stat must be wrong. This is what happens when half the population’s not economically engaged.
VOGELSTEIN: That’s right. And, we think that we simply cannot afford to leave the economic potential of half the population on the table, particularly at a moment of rising fears about a global economic recession. We ought to be doing everything we can to make sure that we are capitalizing on the full human potential that exists, men and women alike.
Now, to be clear, that statistic refers to women completing any type of secondary education. But still, $30 trillion! That’s enough to pay off all student debt in the United States, and then provide free college education for more than a hundred years.
VOGELSTEIN: There are serious examples that have been raised, whether it relates to health, and life, and death issues.
So there’s a cost to excluding women.
Lets run through just a few of these costs. Some are small inconveniences or slights, like the fact that Apple’s health app didn’t have a period tracker. Others are more serious. Women are more likely to be injured or die in car accidents because crash tests are biased toward men. Bullet proof vests are not designed with women in mind, and are hard for women to wear. And the medical world is rife with male bias. Due to years of focus on males in trials and studies, women with heart disease are more likely to be misdiagnosed. A new, really scary development is that biases are being programmed into artificial intelligence, for example facial recognition technology that does a bad job of seeing women.
SMITH: We have such biased algorithms and biased data that we keep self-reinforcing certain things. One of the things ACLU did was they did a face recognition matching to a criminal database of all the members of Congress who mismatched. You know, so here the phone. This says this is you. Is it you? No, right? But the algorithm doesn’t lie.
And yet, yes, of course it does, because humans make the algorithm, and it’s full of our own human bias. It turns out face recognition works terribly on elders and on youth. And it doesn’t work very well on women versus men. And it doesn’t work very well on people of color versus light-skinned people.
SIERRA: You’re leaving out a lot of people.
SMITH: Yeah, which means that self-driving cars are going to kill certain people, or lethal autonomous weapons are going to get things wrong, or these criminal databases are going to mismatch. So this technology is not ready for primetime.
Alright so what can we do?
STONE: We have to make sure history is accurate and we’re telling these stories. And in the spirit of all good advocacy, follow the money, you know, and follow the policy. We’d like to see some concrete investment and some policy changes in this to make a real difference. And that’s what’s going to move the dial, all of this together, not just, you know, having a great International Women’s Day. Although that is an awesome day. It needs to be all year round, and it needs to be reflected in budgets, including here in the United States, in terms of how we spend international development assistance money.
SIERRA: It also seems like solutions are there, people just need to sort of know about them?
VOGELSTEIN: I think that’s right. You know, this is an area, gender inequality, that is often thought of as deeply rooted and intractable. And in fact, looking back to the 1995 U.N. Fourth World Conference on Women, which was the first time that 189 countries came together to agree with one voice, at long last, that women’s rights are human rights. Fast-forward twenty-five years to today, we see that we have gone from a world where it was a foregone conclusion that boys would go to school before girls, to a world in which the gender gap in education at the primary level has virtually closed globally. We have gone from a world where, half a million women were dying from largely preventable conditions related to pregnancy and childbirth every day to a world in which that number has been cut in half in record time. So what does that tell us? It tells us that when we come together as an international community, and set goals, and there’s political leadership, and adequate resources, that we can change these outcomes. And that’s as true when it comes to the gender gaps in STEM education and fields as it was in the area of primary education or women’s health.
The STEM gap has persisted for a long time, but that doesn’t mean that it will last forever. The next step is hard, but essential. We need to recognize the overlooked solutions, uncover the neglected histories, and build them into our everyday lives.
It actually reminds me of something I read while working on this episode: “Mathematical Science shows what is. It is the language of the unseen relations between things. But to use & apply that language we must be able fully to appreciate, to feel, to seize, the unseen.”
That’s Ada Lovelace. She wrote it in 1841. Pretty cool.
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Why It Matters is a production of the Council on Foreign Relations. The show is created and produced by Jeremy Sherlick, Asher Ross, and me, Gabrielle Sierra. Our sound designer is Markus Zakaria. Robert McMahon is our Managing Editor, and Doug Halsey is our Chief Digital Officer. Our researcher is Rafaela Siewert. Original music was composed by Ceiri Torjussen. Special thanks to Richard Haass, Jeff Reinke, and the Women and Foreign Policy Program at CFR.
For Why It Matters, this is Gabrielle Sierra, signing off. See you next time!
In both developed and developing nations, women and girls are excluded from STEM education and professions. This global gender gap leads to lost economic potential and biased technological outcomes. How did we get here? And how can we create a world where women participate equally in STEM?
“Why STEM Needs Girls,” Carol Jenkins
“Investing in Girls’ STEM Education,” Meighan Stone and Rachel B. Vogelstein
“Can Tackling Childcare Fix STEM’s Gender Diversity Problem?,” Rudaba Zehra Nasir
“Girls’ STEM Education Can Drive Economic Growth,” Gwendoline Tilghman
“Making Gains for Women in STEM Fields Will Take More Effort,” New York Times
“Engineering Access for All,” Washington Post
Watch and Listen
“How Did Tech Become So Male-Dominated?,” Atlantic