Start early: Building our girls for STEM careers.
By Megan Doherty, Security Technical Specialist at Microsoft
Aug 31, 2022

An introduction to this article appeared in the monthly Creating Connections newsletter put together by the women of The CyberWire. This is a guest-written article. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors, not necessarily the CyberWire, Inc.

Start early: Building our girls for STEM careers.

School education is drastically different from what it was ten years ago, let alone twenty to thirty years ago. Now, young kids learn programming concepts from as early as elementary school and into high school before deciding whether to take their curiosity further into post-secondary studies. With women still being a minority in the technical workforce, what are we getting wrong with STEM education and young girls?

Astonishingly, the conversation of nature vs. nurture still arises when the discussion of girls and STEM interests come up. This conversation generally leans towards the nature aspect and that women are not as interested in technical concepts. As a young woman myself in a technical field, with a technical education and having spent three years teaching and managing a start-up in this area, the idea of women being uninterested in hard problems and technically from a biological standpoint seemed ridiculous. 

Young girls are some of the best problem solvers we have. They are creative, empathetic and have great engineering minds. When I was teaching a course of young girls ages 8 – 11 compared to young boys of the same age group, the difference in attention to detail and execution in building block-based code is very visible. For example, during a basics robotics class using the Scratch programming language and framework I taught to both genders in similar age groups, the boys took the method of smash the keyboard until something works, the girls took the method of understanding what each line of code means before tackling the problem at hand. 

Both approaches have their merit, however before the girls could quickly solve the tasks at hand, I perceived that they experienced a large amount of self-doubt. Unlike the boys who appeared to have an overwhelming sense of confidence in their abilities.

Where does this self-doubt originate from in girls at such a young age? As a young girl, I had experienced the same types of self-doubt while tackling my own technical education and it was disheartening to see it begin early on in life. Shortly after, when I was presenting programming workshops at a children's science fair I saw first hand when this doubt would begin to seed. 

Standing at the booth we had set up, a parent approached with two kids, a son and a daughter. The son could have cared less about the drones, robots and VR games set up at the booth, the daughter however, who was around age 6, reached for the robot with excitement. I asked, “Do you want to build robots?” “YES!” she said. “ I don’t think she’s ready for that,” her parent said, as I watched the excitement fade from her eyes. This was most likely one of the first times she had been told “no” and inadvertently told ‘you aren’t capable enough’. 

When these narratives begin early on of not being capable enough (yet) and having to be achieve something out of everything that you do, it creates a division and false lack of interest for young girls around STEM. Do not be fooled, young girls do want to build robots, build video games and be creative. I believe that these seeds of doubt grow as they age, already taking themselves out of these opportunities or coming in late and feeling lost, because the fearless encouragement was not there. 

As a woman in tech, specifically cybersecurity, it is not uncommon to experience self-doubt. However, based on my years of teaching and continued commitment to the growth of young women in STEM, as individuals we can understand and minimize these fears early on, allowing for explorative curiosity and interests in deeply technical fields. 

As a young cybersecurity professional and STEM educator who has tackled these challenges and continues to overcome doubt, my advice to parents, educators and cybersecurity professionals who want to see technology flourish with new ideas from young women would be: 

  • Equal opportunities: Never assume the interests of a child, computers have no gender and no boundaries. 
  • Your self-doubt does not belong on the next generation. Fear is learned through observation and the words we choose. Do not hold back a young bright girl because of your own insecurities. 
  • Always provide representation, it is hard for someone to see themselves overcoming obstacles if there is not someone they can identify with. 

At end of the day, I encourage and empower you as professionals to uplift and empower the young women in your lives, to not gatekeep the power a little girl can feel from tackling a challenging problem and exploring fields that were restricted to us in the past. After all, they may be your boss one day.