Our society can do a better job of empowering women and the advocacy of Women in Science and Entrepreneurship (W.I.S.E.) is crucial in the development of the next generation of women in STEM.
Gender stereotypes start young. Only 14% of teenage girls want to become scientists, but this number rises to 76% when they are shown an engineer’s job duties. In almost every culture, from Kansas City to South Korea, young girls are encouraged to stay home, cook and clean, while their male counterparts are encouraged to go outside, go on adventures, and be brave. A global study shows that by 10 years old, female adolescents say their physical appearance is their key asset. This can become restrictive and have negative consequences.
At the W.I.S.E. KC event presented by the Kansas City Area Life Sciences Institute, BioKansas, Missouri Cures, and Missouri Biotechnology Association, four female entrepreneurs shared their career experiences during the open forum at the Kauffman Foundation. Elizabeth Loboa, Dean of the College of Engineering at the University of Missouri, encouraged women to take a stand against sexual harassment and focused on shocking statistics about female students and engineers locally and nationally. Nationwide, less than 20% of engineering students are female. Currently, the University of Missouri is even lower than that for undergraduates. Dean Loboa aims to double the number of graduate students by 2020 and that will result in an added demand for faculty, which will give her an opportunity to increase diversity in teaching staff. There are far too few women in engineering programs in universities across the country.
“We need to make sure we’re doing everything in our power to reach the next generation and help them,” Loboa said. “We need to elevate everyone. Corporate boards that employ women perform better.”
Women make up half the workforce but less than 25% of them make up the STEM workforce. In the next decade, 80% of jobs will require technology skills. The speakers identified the opportunity for more women in STEM careers if action is taken now. Loboa is leading by example and demanding change from her peers. She and the three other panelists: Tammie Wahaus, CEO of Elias Animal Health; Rebecca MacKinnon, principal and founder of 5th Dimension Strategies; and Nancy Zurbuchen, Small Business Administration, Region 7, stand to lead as sponsors to the next wave of young women entering the workforce.
Dean Loboa recalls that she was well into her graduate degree before she encountered her first female mentor. She had many male allies along the way, for which she is eternally grateful, but will never forget how far she had to climb before she worked with her first female mentor. The leading women on the W.I.S.E. KC panel asked for more than mentorship, they requested that women in leadership be sponsors. To sponsor is to extend out and promote other women to develop within the organization and take a chance for them to join their ranks. The challenge is to be more than a mentor, be a sponsor. Find bright women within your organization and be bold on their behalf. Show them that women can be brave and adventurous; we will all be better for it.