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Evolving the Message

This past year has marked the beginning of what I suspect will be a long journey for me (and hopefully others!) to improve the state of STEM education in the country with a sort of grassroots approach. There are many different demographics to focus on, and I’ve chosen to focus on what I know and what I can speak to – women in STEM careers. There’s plenty of room for others who choose to focus on different demographics, but between my personal passion on the subject and the significant decline in female interest in STEM careers like computer science, the call is too strong to ignore.

But just because the target demographic is female students doesn’t mean that we only want females involved in the work. It’s a difficult line to walk when trying to get the message out. Last night, I had the honor of presenting an expanded version of my Computer Engineer Barbie talk to a group of Seattle IxDA members on the University of Washington campus. The event was billed as a “Women in Design” event by the event organizers, and during the followup discussion one of the few men in the audience pointed out that such a title might discourage inclusive participation. There was also some interesting feedback from his perspective on the talk – it seems that some new material I’ve been working on regarding the “what’s in it for us?” angle might capture more attention. But I digress.

I don’t think that “women in X” events are bad or counterproductive by any means – they’re an important way to provide a safe environment for women to explore their experiences and to develop a support network. I’m treasurer of just such a support network at Microsoft, and it’s a really important resource for hundreds of women here. But how can this message be portrayed outside of all-female events to inspire passion from both men and women? I’m not sure what the right venue or format is yet, but it’s a good goal. Just not entirely sure where to start…

I must say that after my original talk at Interaction ’11, I was very inspired by the fathers that came up to me to share their stories. Fathers with daughters probably find themselves a little more receptive to the message I’m trying to share. Interestingly, some shared a reticence to be *too* enthusiastic about their careers with their daughters for fear of making it seem uncool, or a “dad” thing. That does speak to the importance of providing female role models in tech in addition to any male role models a girl might be lucky enough to have, but ideally there’d be a way to share that enthusiasm equally.

It may be that part of the battle is proving that 1) gender inequalities still exist, no matter how enlightened educated pockets of the country might be, and 2) these girls will not be taking jobs away from men, but simply taking seats that at the moment are going unfilled. There’s also some compelling evidence that other countries do not suffer from this inequality in tech careers, which I’d like to explore more, especially for future talk opportunities if they arise.

Do you have any thoughts on the subject?

  • Male readers: What sorts of messages would catch your attention and inspire you to help advance the cause of young women in STEM careers? What experience have you had with your daughters?
  • Female readers: Do you know of any male champions for the cause, or have you found specific strategies helpful when describing these issues with others? Can you think of mixed-gender organizations you’re a part of that might participate in this effort?
  • ALL readers: one of the questions that came up was whether there are other particular fields in STEM (aside from IxD) that might also serve as good “gateway drugs” for young female students. Mechanical engineering? Industrial design? Anyone out there have any specific insights along these lines?

Thanks to the good people of the Seattle IxDA for inviting me to share my message last night. If you know of a group of people who would like to hear the message or participate in this conversation, please do contact me! cheryl @