My April column in Mechanical Engineering magazine.
Back in 1968 when it still was fashionable to light up a cigarette, Virginia Slims entered the marketplace with a unique, sleek product and a popular marketing campaign aimed at women. Not only was the new cigarette narrower than other brands—that was the “slims” in Virginia—but it had a catchy slogan meant to appeal to young professional women: “You’ve come a long way, baby.”
The catchphrase quickly became part of the day’s vernacular. Some today may consider it sexist and a cynical campaign to sell tobacco products, but in the 1970s and ’80s the theme came to encapsulate the advances women had made in participating in almost every sphere of public and economic life. Even so, some stereotypes linger, and one of them is that engineering is not for women.
Diversifying the engineering workforce from its traditional male dominance is something organizations like ASME, the Society of Women Engineers, the National Science Foundation, and numerous others are working hard to do. The Girl Scouts of America is another, and it has come a long way since the organization was founded.
Celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, the group continues to sell its iconic cookies, but that’s one of the very few things that has not changed since 1912. The Girl Scouts are working hard to help shake the widely held notion that young women don’t thrive in areas of science, technology, engineering, and math. To prove that girls love STEM, the Girl Scouts teamed up with Lockheed Martin to conduct a research report called Generation STEM: What Girls Say about Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. The conclusions of the report may surprise you.
It found, for example, that 74 percent of teen girls are interested in the field of STEM and in STEM subjects; and that most girls are interested in the process of learning, asking questions, and solving problems. It also found that girls who are interested in STEM are high achievers who have supportive adult networks and are exposed to STEM fields.
In all, the report shows that a high number of teen girls are interested in STEM fields and subjects, and are drawn by the creative and hands-on aspects that characterize these fields. It also shows that parents or other role models play a significant role in the development of STEM interest among girls.
For the Girl Scouts, the topic of STEM is framed in leadership. That is, the Scouts emphasize the importance of leadership skills to make the world a better place. The research suggests that girls are more interested in STEM careers when they know that their work will help others. ASME also understands this and its own initiatives, such as EngineeringForChange.org, are stimulating thousands of young engineers each year.
Beyond the research report, the Girl Scouts truly have come a long way in developing leadership in young women. New programs and recognition badges now focus on science and technology and aim at fostering a generation of women who embrace technology and understand that a career in engineering is a matter of choice, and not a matter of gender.