Power tools are too dangerous for girls. Boys are better at math. Technology is a guy thing.
Many girls hear these subtle suggestions throughout their lives – from peers, parents and even teachers. The comments are often well intentioned, likely meant to protect girls from injury or failure. But in reality they limit girls’ opportunities to grow, learn and achieve, and sometimes discourage girls from pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).
Fortunately for Sophie Hoge, who grew up on a farm outside of Aneta, N.D., she learned to overcome those gender stereotypes at a young age.
One day in eighth grade, while waiting for her mother to pick her up after school, she wandered into a classroom where a group was working on a robot for a FIRST® (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics competition. She sat down, watched and started asking questions.
Something clicked. “It really opened my eyes. I didn’t know engineering was even a career,” she said.
That was the start of Sophie’s involvement with her local FIRST Robotics team. It led to new experiences and a new confidence as she traveled the country for competitions. Eventually she pursued an engineering degree at Purdue University and ultimately came home to North Dakota to work as a manufacturing engineer at the John Deere Seeding Group.
Building Robots…and Confidence #LikeAGirl
Sophie’s experience shows the power of FIRST to affect lives and careers. The organization’s mission is simple: To inspire young people to become science and technology leaders.
FIRST offers after-school programs designed to engage kids ages 6 to 18 with fun activities, challenges and competitions. Through the programs, kids build their STEM skills as well as well-rounded life capabilities like confidence, communication, teamwork and leadership.
One of FIRST’s cornerstones is the involvement of professional technologists who volunteer as mentors. This gives kids the opportunity to work with and learn from mechanical, electrical, and software engineers and others who work in STEM fields.
FIRST is open to boys and girls, who work and compete with each other on equal terms. But, the program seems especially beneficial to girls.
In the United States, women are severely under-represented in engineering and other STEM fields. According to a study released by Million Women Mentors women hold less than 25% of STEM jobs, despite filling close to half of all jobs in the U.S. And, more than 20% of engineering graduates are women, yet only 11% are practicing.
The reasons for this disparity are various and complex, but Sophie believes much of it can be traced to the stereotypical challenges girls face from a very young age. According to Sophie, these stereotypes insidiously deter them from pursuing interests in science or technology.
“As children, when they are learning and absorbing the most, gender stereotypes become ingrained,” said Sophie. “If girls are constantly told they’re not supposed to be good at math, they are not going to try as hard.”
FIRST and similar programs give girls an opportunity to push those limits and build the confidence to follow their own paths. “Confidence is built by trying your hand at a task and succeeding,” she said. “By giving girls an opportunity to overcome challenges on their own, we’re helping build that confidence.”
Grace Bailey, 16, says FIRST helped her learn to approach any challenge with confidence. “Everything you do in FIRST is applicable to the real world,” said the high school junior from West Fargo, N.D. “I know if there is a problem or challenge that I want to face or learn more about, I can apply myself to figure it out.”
All In A Day’s Work
See how FIRST volunteer Sophie Hoge spends a day on the job as a manufacturing engineer for John Deere.
All In A Day’s Work
Inspiring the Next Generation
In addition to FIRST, there are several other programs designed to expose young girls to science and technology. One of the more popular events is “Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day,” an event held each year nationwide.
Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day is geared toward younger girls and gives them a feel for what it’s like to be an engineer through fun, hands-on engineering challenges.
In the most popular challenge, “BrushBot,” students assemble robots out of a pager motor, toothbrush head and batteries. This simple, fun activity introduces students to the basics of problem solving through technology, preparing them for the more advanced projects they will encounter as they explore STEM educational opportunities.
Why is STEM education so important? According to the U.S. Department of Labor, only 5% of U.S. workers are employed in fields related to science and engineering, yet they are responsible for more than 50% the country’s sustained economic expansion.
Simply put, the world needs future innovators. Sophie is an example of how eliminating stereotypes early can expand a girl’s view, close the gender gap in STEM and inspire tomorrow’s innovators. According to a recent FIRST study, alumni of the program are twice as likely to major in science or engineering in college. About one-third of FIRST’s female alumni choose engineering as a major, compared to the national average of 20%.
Today, Sophie is actively giving back to FIRST, helping encourage the next generation. While she works with both boys and girls, she is especially interested in helping girls break through gender barriers.
She said being timid is one of the main challenges girls have when expressing interest in technology. “I was really pushy when I started, but a lot of girls aren’t,” she said. “I want girls to understand what’s available to them.”
Sophie believes having more women in engineering will benefit everyone. For companies that place a high value on innovation, such as John Deere, having a diverse workforce provides multiple viewpoints, which leads to better products. “Women are creative in a different way than men,” she said. “We have a lot to offer.”
Have you forged a career path in uncharted territory, or encouraged a young woman to pursue a career in the STEM field? Tell us your story in the comments below!