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Young women take the lead in STEM

Sep 12 2014

In August 2014, Stanford professor of mathematics Maryam Mirzakhani became the first woman to win the Fields Medal, often described as the Nobel Prize of mathematics. Tim Gowers, a mathematician at Cambridge University and a Fields medalist himself, reflected on Mirzakhani’s accomplishment in the Guardian: “I hope the existence of a female Fields medalist, who will surely be the first of many, will put to bed many myths about women and mathematics, and encourage more young women to think of mathematical research as a possible career."

As the Stanford community celebrates Mirzakhani’s achievement, its members are also working to bring more young women into non-traditional fields like Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM). In July and August this year, an organization called Miss CEO held a series of workshops sponsored by Stanford’s Department of Bioengineering, intended to equip young women with the skills necessary to thrive academically and professionally, particularly in STEM fields.

“There were so few women… It was eye-opening” 

With the enactment of Title IX in 1972, women’s access to educational and employment opportunities increased dramatically. Yet gender segregation in the workplace remains a major characteristic of the economic landscape, especially in STEM disciplines. In 2012, Forbes reported that while professionals concentrating in STEM fields earned the highest salaries in the American labor market, women accounted for just seven percent of all engineers. Worse still, statistics indicated no employment growth for women in STEM jobs from 2000 to 2012. 

Miss CEO founder Nita Singh Kaushal and vice president Andreina Parisi-Amon know about the challenges confronting women in STEM from personal experience. As an undergraduate in electrical engineering at Stanford, Kaushal observed, “There were so few women, not only in my engineering classes, but in the related courses I took as well. It was eye opening.” When Kaushal began working as a professional in Silicon Valley, the obstacles women encountered in engineering and related fields became still more apparent. “Leadership skills are especially needed in STEM,” she explained, “because as women in these fields, we have fewer females to look up to and we’re overwhelmingly competing with men.” 

Determined to help more women in STEM thrive in professional settings, Kaushal decided to take action. In 2006, she founded Miss CEO, an education start-up designed to provide women, particularly young women, with the leadership skills necessary to reach their academic and professional goals.  

Building a Leadership Toolkit 

Miss CEO offers a variety of leadership workshops, some of which cover general skills, while others target specific age groups and professional disciplines. The namesake Miss CEO workshop teaches basic leadership skills to young women in middle school, high school, and college. A Mini-CEO workshop, designed for elementary and middle school students, takes a different approach by including both boys and girls in the program. According to Parisi-Amon, the hope is that, in a co-ed environment, the younger students will see each other as “co-CEOs” before stereotypes surrounding gender and work become engrained.  

The Miss CEO Summer Leadership Academy (SLA) held at Stanford this year proved particularly notable because it included a community service component. In their application for the SLA, high school girls from Palo Alto, Mountain View, and Cupertino were asked to submit a proposal for a community service project they hoped to spearhead with the help of SLA mentors.  

Over the ten-day workshop, Miss CEO organizers and respected female leaders from throughout the Bay Area helped participants develop what Kaushal called their “leadership toolkit.” Faith Kazimi, associate dean at Stanford Women’s Center, talked about the importance of “stepping out of your comfort zone.” Guest speaker Arielle Jackson, who has worked in marketing at both Google and Square, looked at the role of risk-taking and goal-setting in the world of technology start-ups. And students learned the value of career exploration from guest speaker Anaïs Saint-Jude, who holds a PhD in French and now works as student engagement manager at the Stanford Technology Ventures Program (STVP).

“This was my first chance to be an entrepreneur” 

Through their community service projects, SLA participants put their mentors’ advice and their newly acquired leadership skills into action. While not all of the projects involved technology or related fields, Kaushal and Parisi-Amon consistently encouraged the students to brave the world of STEM. As Kaushal put it, “Our goal is to open them up to the breadth and variety of projects they might consider. We need to discourage the idea that this is a ‘girls subject’ and this is a ‘boys subject'.” Rising senior Juhi Patel certainly took this advice to heart: during her time at SLA, Patel built an app designed to help people connect with smaller, under-recognized charities. As Patel put it, “Miss CEO was a great platform for me to talk to my mentors and sort out the main aspects of creating an app, such as what types of charities to include and how to create an easy operational experience. This was my first chance to be an entrepreneur, and I am very happy to have gotten this great opportunity.”

There is, of course, room for SLA to improve: with a $995 tuition fee, the socio-economic diversity of participants is limited. That said, financial aid is available, and according to Parisi-Amon, Miss CEO hopes to expand the program to reach a more diverse set of students in the future. 

In an interview in 2008, Fields medalist Maryam Mirzakhani remarked that, until her final year in high school, she “never thought [she] would pursue mathematics.” Here’s hoping that, with continued support from Stanford, programs like Miss CEO SLA will help young women feel confident and inspired to follow Mirzakhani’s lead in the years to come. 

A gender lens
exposes gaps in knowledge,
identifies root causes of barriers,
and proposes workable solutions.