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Don't Let It Pass Them By - By Sheila Narayanan

JUNE 28, 2021

"I think it passed me by. I am too old to learn coding," my 12-year-old daughter stated in response to my query about why she hadn't yet taken a coding class.

Her statement was like a dagger in my heart. How could this great-grandchild, granddaughter, and daughter of engineers possibly make such an outrageous statement?  How could she believe such a thing to be true? My immediate reaction was to fix the situation and her thinking by immediately finding a coding class to enroll her in.  That would surely set the ship right . . .or not.

As I investigated, I came to understand that my daughter's belief in her coding incapability was not unusual among preteen girls, even for one who was talented in math and science.  Those she knew who coded were boys, with many of them fitting the stereotype —  a nerdy, hoodie-wearing introvert. Although they were friends, my daughter didn't see herself in them. She also didn't see the point in coding as she equated coding with computer games, and the play of those games consisted of shooting and killing enemies. She couldn't see a connection between coding and her interests and didn't understand its relevance in everyday life.

After speaking with the school's principal, it was clear that girls checking out of hard science and math, even before middle school, was a common phenomenon. To my great surprise and dismay, I found that the stats for women in technical fields had not changed very much since my own time studying to become a mechanical engineer when I was one of just three girls in a class of 40 boys!  An engineer by trade and by nature, I set forth on a mission to diagnose and fix this problem.

We have become quite familiar with the issue of "pink aisle" reinforcement in toy stores, where girls get dolls and kitchen sets for make-believe games. At the same time, boys are presented with more intellectually stimulating, and in my opinion, nifty building sets and activities. Add to that the challenge of very few female engineer role models, unwelcoming workplaces and, the general lack of understanding of the range of engineering or tech careers, exacerbating the problem tenfold.

When asked, most people can't tell you what an engineer does and how it impacts their everyday lives. Children and adults see doctors, lawyers, and other professions in daily interactions, but few engineers or tech workers regularly. So, in the absence of day-to-day interactions and explicit connections to everyday life, the media-reinforced stereotype of the hoodied coder persists, although we are never clear what that coder actually does.

In response, I partnered with the American Association of University Women (AAUW) to start "WizGirls – Building the Future!" The event was designed for 9–13-year-old girls to demonstrate how technology and engineering impacted their daily lives.  Every year, a group of 200 excited preteen girls from all kinds of schools and backgrounds come to the event for hands-on engineering experiences provided by local companies.  The activities include virtually designing artificial limbs, creating wearable tech, sound mixing for "Frozen," and working on group projects that require collaboration to build a car or bridge. One activity, a favorite, was the Pepsi mixology session, for which girls created their own customized flavored drinks, mixing potions from raspberry to pomegranate. At the same time, female engineers shared how chemistry and manufacturing underpinned the creation of drinks.  I called it "Stealth STEM fun."

The participants left having had fun and pizza, but most importantly, understanding that tech and engineering were much more than awkward boys coding in a basement. They saw that engineering was relevant to their everyday lives. It was social, had purpose, and required a range of skills from collaboration and communication to design and project management.  

This is not to say that there are no other efforts to engage women in tech and engineering. In fact, there are many. There are a lot of companies concerned about their short-term talent pipeline that fund programs for college and high school students to become tech literate. The problem with this effort is it is too late. They are addressing the bottom of the talent funnel, well after students, in the absence of knowledge, have already decided whether they are or are not "science and maths kids." So many adult women have told me, "I would have been an engineer if I only understood."

Even parents, teachers, and guidance counselors who know that STEM literacy and coding are critical for their kids do not know where to start or exactly what that translates into.  When we conducted a session with guidance counselors about the types of people needed to create a website, we used the analogy of building. A house needs an architect (UI/UX), a structural engineer (technical architect), bricklayers (developers), plumbers (data analytics), and more, as well as a project manager to keep the workers on task and on time.  We understand and accept that the architect probably cannot do plumbing. Every engineer knows that any engineering and tech project requires a similar range of skills. However, this was a revelation to the guidance counselors, who had previously lumped them all together as 'techies.' My counsel to these adults is that coding is like driving,  an important skill to learn.  However, learning to drive doesn't mean you are destined to be a taxi driver.  Driving, like coding, is a means to an end. It offers an understanding of what is possible and, with the proper context, helps expose students to the possibilities that relate to their interests.

While no CEO or CTO wants to hear it, changing the paradigm of gender parity in tech is a long-term investment and a numbers game, not a short-term, quick fix.  We state this because, despite many programs for older girls, the number of women in engineering roles has not increased significantly. The more girls you educate at the top of the funnel, before the age of 10, the better young women will understand the options, see the possibility and have the opportunity to gain the right skills leading to more choosing to pursue these careers while they are in high school and college. The critical mentoring initiatives at companies, hiring and inclusion policies only take effect when the women join.

To be clear, I am not suggesting that programs further up the talent funnel absolve organizations from addressing real workplace biases, policies, and more but countering the messages to young girls requires a concerted, wide-ranging effort. That initiative, when successful, can address the talent leakage at every point in the funnel, and it's a commitment worth making. Even if the investment horizon seems too long to have a financial return for any one organization, it will ultimately benefit all organizations.  Indeed, it is the only way to change the face of tech! 

About the Author

Sheila Narayanan is a rocket scientist and business executive turned STEM Evangelist who, after graduating with a degree in mechanical engineering,  just one of three women in a class of more than 40 students, launched her career designing jet engines for Rolls Royce and GE.  An early evangelist for the role of data in transforming businesses, Sheila spent over 15 years leading data-driven digital transformation at several companies including as the founding Head of Product for the Information Business at MasterCard. She pioneered the monetization of the company's transaction and location data and was instrumental in architecting MasterCard's entry into the Loyalty business.

Realizing that the numbers of women in engineering were still appallingly low, Sheila pivoted to apply her business skills to the problem of STEM education and advocacy for underserved groups starting with the position of   Chief Digital Experience Executive at Girl Scouts of the USA where she led the digital transformation of its program. Most recently, as the Head of Volunteerism and Community Development for Cognizant (a Fortune 200 tech services company), Sheila has intensified her efforts on inclusion in tech and the use of technology for social impact.

 

Turning to focus on youth forward efforts, Sheila is a board member of the Northeast Stem Starter Academy in Mt. Vernon (NSSA Board), a mentor for both the Ossining Innovates, an inclusive incubator, and StartEd an organization for entrepreneurs in EdTech, and is involved with other initiatives to bridge the digital divide. Sheila holds an MBA from the University of Chicago and lives with her family in Westchester, New York.