Science & Technology

International Day of the Girl: Why science and math programs matter

Camille Crittenden

Late last year, the United Nations declared Oct. 11 the International Day of the Girl. Celebrated for the first time this month, the occasion aims to highlight the challenges girls face around the world to gain access to education and other basic rights, and empower them to advocate on their own behalf. Despite recent publications declaring the “end of men,” evidence shows that continued investment in education for girls (and equality for women) is needed, right, and smart.

Studies indicate that increased education for girls leads to lower poverty rates and better health outcomes for the whole family. But gaps in access to primary education are common in developing countries, especially where families must pay fees for their children to attend. Literacy rates among girls often suffer; for example, in Afghanistan, 18 percent of girls age 15-24 are literate compared to 50 percent of boys.

In more developed countries with the capacity (or mandate) to provide basic educational equality, girls still lag behind boys, especially in their achievement in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). A 2009 study by the American Society of Engineering Education notes that undergraduate degrees from engineering schools awarded to women hit a 15-year-low. As Stephanie Coontz highlighted in a recent New York Times article, “the percentage of female electrical engineers doubled in each decade in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. But in the two decades since 1990 it has increased by only a single percentage point, leaving women at just 10 percent of the total.”

Universities and industry leaders are taking measures to make the field more welcoming for young women. Most college engineering programs have diversity and outreach programs that aim to increase enrollment of women and under-represented minorities. And a recently announced pilot program, WitsOn (Women in Technology Sharing Online), matches mentors from corporations and top-ranked universities (including nearly all the UC campuses) with female students in STEM fields.

But reaching young women by the time they enter college is not soon enough. In order to increase female representation in STEM majors and graduate programs, it is essential to engage girls in related activities at K-12 levels. A few organizations have recognized this gap and created programs to address it. Microsoft’s DigiGirlz Hi-Tech Camp offers workshops and presentations for high-school girls. Black Girls Code and the NSF-funded National Girls Collaborative Project support STEM programs for underserved communities.

Efforts to increase women’s participation in these fields may be found not only in the United States but also internationally, even in countries that struggle to provide equality in basic education. Girls in Tech, with chapters in the United States and around the world, promotes women’s innovations in technology. AkiraChix, a Nairobi-based network of mentors, aims to inspire and sustain interest in technology fields among young African women. Indeed, Africa is home to many female rising stars in technology, as a recent article noted with an allusion to Yahoo’s new CEO: Who are Africa’s Marissa Mayers? And multilateral programs like USAID’s Women and Girls Lead Global and UN Foundation’s Girl Up have been launched recently to boost girls’ empowerment and access to education overall.

In my role as director of the Data and Democracy Initiative at the Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society (CITRIS), I want to encourage efforts to bring greater gender-parity to science and engineering fields. Not just because studies show that greater participation of women raises the level of collective intelligence in business teams, but because democracies deserve full participation of all their citizens. Few efforts could better serve the “interests of society” than strengthening programs for girls to explore the full range of subjects available to them. On the International Day of the Girl, consider supporting local initiatives or international organizations devoted to bolstering access to education and basic human rights for girls. Both data and democracy will improve when girls are prepared to participate fully in governance, leadership, and innovation.

Cross-posted from the Huffington Post.

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Comments to "International Day of the Girl: Why science and math programs matter":
    • phil

      I used to volunteer for a Belgian charity called “SOS Kinderdorpen” and they did research in poor families in Togo, Africa and better education for girls actually increased their live quality. Great blog!

      [Report abuse]

    • Tech ED

      We need programs like these to not only respond to the interests of girls and young women in tech industries, but to also mentor them. Encouraging our girls and young women to excel in STEM related activities will empower them to lead in those traditionally male dominated industries later in life. In addition, a diverse representation in our technology fields will help everyone regardless of gender.

      Girls & Technology

      [Report abuse]

    • Leigh Chen

      I don’t believe that encouraging and supporting any individual segment of our society with special programs, resources, or affirmative action is right or good. Encourage EVERYONE, support EVERYONE, give opportunities to EVERYONE.

      [Report abuse]

    • ajb

      I think every tech staff/faculty…male or female, ….should have one day a year to visit/talk at a MS/HS annually at various economic levels…

      We have Cal Day for seniors and others, but a separate Middle School Day at Berkeley would be great! Area schools should make it an annual event.

      [Report abuse]

    • Renee

      I’m always curious when I hear ppl saying, I want to raise my daughter to be nerdy and play with legos and climb trees and defend herself. And articles like these that encourage more women into male dominated fields like engineering and mathematics. While I’m all for it, I also wonder why we’re always trying to get women to be more like men, when, men could benefit from being taught more “feminine” qualities like sensitivity, compassion etc. Or letting boys/men know it’s okay to be in roles that are traditionally seen as occupied by women. I’d like to raise a boy who has strong communication skills as well as has a choice in what he wants to do for a career. Same for my girl. Why are we always so focused on changing women??

      Marcus — i’m sorry you feel so bitter about a special day for girls. That’s quite a conclusion you jumped to.

      [Report abuse]

    • andychen

      increased education for girls leads to lower poverty rates is very true, the problem is there’s still large proportion poverty countries even can not afford these fundamental education, so how can they increase poverty through education is remain a problem.

      [Report abuse]

    • Marcus Aurelius

      Boys are falling behind at ALL levels of education, and are four times as likely to commit suicide by age 30. But please, make sure we have a day devoted to making girls feel safe and special, because boys really don’t matter.

      [Report abuse]

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