This is a blog post in a series sponsored by Cisco and its partners promoting women in STEM. Check out more stories about women in STEM here. Find out even more on HuffPost ImpactX, where people, technology, and social impact converge.
For the last couple of years, I've read myriad articles that explain why we need more females in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields. Each has brought up important and relevant points. Though these articles are inspiring and thoughtful, they haven't presented a solution to the problem. As a teacher, the trend has been perplexing: How are we supposed to right the wrong without knowing the proper course of action to take?
The reality is that a lack of females in STEM classrooms and professions is a major travesty. As of 2008, only 28 percent of IT-related jobs belonged to women, down from 36 percent in the early 1990s. Diversity is a driving factor in innovation, as diverse perspectives lead to informed decisions that produce creative solutions. As a society, we stand to benefit from the diversity that will come from recruiting more females into STEM fields.
Additionally, we must expose young women to opportunities in STEM in order to ensure they can make informed decisions about their lives and find the careers that suit them best.
To address the problem, we have to have a plan. What follows are five guiding principles that will help you establish one that will lead to more females in STEM classes.
1. Be Intentional
Make the recruitment of females a priority. Whether you're in a classroom, in business, or in the nonprofit field, you have to make goals and implement a strategy focused on extending opportunities to young women. This might mean restructuring current goals or crafting new ones with this in mind.
Three years ago, I had the privilege of starting an IT Academy in an urban public high school with a team of dedicated educators. In developing a vision for the program, our team consciously decided that the student population of our IT Academy should reflect the overall population of our school. Within the adoption of that goal, we had to make the recruitment of females a priority.
In three years, the enrollment of females in our IT Academy has exceeded 50 percent. Though this might seem impressive to most, we still haven't met our goals: The overall student population is 56 percent female.
Still, the achievement is important because it represents progress. We want our IT Academy to represent our school and community. We want to ensure that our young women have the same opportunities as our young men. We want to help our community move forward. We've been able to do that because we set a meaningful goal that has guided our recruitment strategy.
2. Be Strategic
After we set the goal, we implemented a simple plan: recruit young women. We went to schools and told them about this awesome IT program and all that they could learn. It was shocking to us when they didn't sign up right away.
We realized young women don't want someone telling them what they will learn in STEM classes or how they can become a software engineer. Instead, they want to know how STEM classes can provide them with the skills they need to fulfill their dreams. If a young woman wants to solve world hunger, then you have to show her how building networks or developing apps can help her do that.
We started finding success by personalizing recruitment. Doing this requires you to make recruitment a continuous experience, because you can't personalize recruitment if you don't start building strong relationships. You can't establish relationships if you only show up once. Visit classrooms regularly and get to know the students. Doing so will help them feel more comfortable with the idea of a future in your classroom.
Finally, we learned that we had to recruit parents. In most cases, it is parents and guardians who make the biggest impact on the decisions of young women (and men, too). My student, AB, put it best: "[Parents] bring up things that you wouldn't have thought about, because they've lived through life already. They make you think about the long run and how [STEM] is going to help you."
Making connections for parents between STEM careers and fulfilling futures for their daughters goes a long way toward increasing the number of females taking STEM classes. Don't know where to start? Consider visiting parent nights or community events and inviting parents to visit your classroom to see what current students are learning.
3. Be Engaging
Recruiting females into STEM classes requires you to engage the ones who are already there. Young women talk about what they're learning with family and friends, and that talking will undoubtedly extend to your future recruits. If you don't know if they're engaged, then ask them. Nobody knows what works best for young women better than other young women.
When I asked my students what engages them most, they consistently referenced instruction as the most important factor of their experience. Students want teachers that make the content relevant and meaningful. My student, NP, put it like this: "Teachers have to learn something about their students and then make connections between what we're learning and what we're interested in. It makes it relevant, and it makes you want to learn."
Good teaching will always ensure that they want to be in your classroom.
Given the social nature of teens, it's also important to build a strong classroom community. Students feel engaged when they feel supported. Create strong community by scheduling or grouping students with others of similar skill levels instead of placing them in classes with a bunch of "know-it-alls." Next, teach students how to collaborate with their peers. Through collaboration, students will develop positive, supportive relationships with one another. Doing so will make challenging courses, like AP Computer Science, something that students always look forward to.
4. Be Empowering
We have a responsibility to empower our young women to pursue careers in STEM. They already understand the importance of preparing for their future. Why not help them explore how your classroom can lead to one of many rewarding careers in a STEM field? It will show your students that STEM is something they can stick with -- something that will continue to give them opportunities long after they leave your class.
You can also help young women envision successful careers in STEM by introducing them to potential role models. This means making sure they are aware of successful women like Marissa Mayer, Sheryl Sandberg, and Megan Smith. It also means connecting them with mentors closer in age. My students reminded me that "it's easier to hear it from somebody who is more like a peer, somebody else who is going through it." Consider seeking out mentors for them at a local college or introducing them to organizations like she++
Finally, hold them to high expectations and treat them equally. This might seem like a no-brainer, but there is perhaps nothing more important. When asked what I do best to empower my students, NP said: "You treat us all equally. You don't put us down because we're women. You expect us to do all of the same things that anybody else does."
Making sure that they know they are capable will provide them with the confidence required to navigate what may seem like uncharted territory.
5. Be Willing to Adjust
If you aren't accomplishing your goals, then be prepared to adjust. Righting wrongs isn't easy. The fight for gender equality didn't start yesterday, and things won't change overnight. Finding what works requires a lot of time and effort, and we certainly didn't have it right from the start. Just no matter what you do, don't give up. We owe it to our young women, and to our communities, to try.