Why We Need a National STEM Competition Just for Girls

When I was in the third grade, I invented a refrigerator. It was fancy for the time – it kept an inventory of everything inside, suggested recipes, and (gasp!) connected to the internet so you could order groceries from home. But two things were even cooler about this fridge. First, it came straight out of the minds of four little girls. Second, it won a national science competition.

This awkward gem of a photo shows our all-girl inventor team with our “Refrigerator with a Brain.” The competition was sponsored by Toshiba (thanks, Toshiba!), and still exists today!

Fast forward twenty years and you’ll find that I am not a scientist. Not even close. I’m a writer and an advocate and a public policy student. But not once since the third grade have I donned a lab coat.

So what happened?

Like so many girls, I had a talent in math and science but quickly assumed that it wasn’t for me. In high school, I dropped out of AP Chemistry for fear that I’d get a bad grade. In college, I shied away from hard science and math classes in order to preserve my GPA. My perfectionism shut the door on science, holding me back from opportunities to expand my mind and career choices.

My story isn’t unusual. While interning at the Small Business Administration this summer, I’ve been learning all about girls in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields. As you’d expect, there aren’t very many.

Although women are earning the majority of bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees today, the story is very different in STEM. In engineering, women earn 30 percent of PhDs. In math, they earn 26 percent of PhDs, and in computer science, only 20 percent.

So why does this matter? It’s not only an equality issue. It’s also an economic empowerment issue. In high-growth STEM fields, women earn 33 percent more than their counterparts in non-STEM industries. STEM companies are sparking some of the most creative and profitable products across the country, but women aren’t there to benefit from this growth. The problem goes all the way up to business ownership in STEM fields, where few women are making the move from graduate and post-doc work to entrepreneurship.

There’s lots of research and speculation on why this happens: Girls are discouraged by the lack of other girls in these fields. College-aged women feel more pressure to perform perfectly, and shy away from the risk of bad grades in hard science classes. Women drop out of STEM following graduate school because these fields allow for less flexibility in balancing family and work life.

But we know that girls (and especially teenage girls) are competitive. And I believe that competing–and winning–in STEM in high school can make a big difference. This is when girls are close to making career-changing decisions, picking classes and colleges that will shape their future. Going into an all-male engineering class may always be intimidating, but girls need to see the innovation and profit opportunities on the other side in order to make it through.

That’s why I’m issuing a challenge to Toshiba, the company that sponsored my science competition, and other technology companies: Create a HUGE national competition just for high school girls.

Challenge girls to envision tomorrow’s science and technology game-changers. Make them pitch their ideas as business plans. Get girls thinking about innovation AND entrepreneurship, while competing in an all-female space that feels welcoming enough to transform fence-sitters into full-fledged inventors. And in the end, reward them with big savings bonds that they can put toward college and later business enterprises.

In other words, show girls that they can win in STEM. With courage and business experience in their pocket, these girls will be tomorrow’s leading business owners.

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