We Need More Women in STEM: The Competition for Solutions Takes Flight

Is it the lack of STEM-related role models for women? Is it that the human capital networks in the field are still heavily populated by men? Is it women's lack of commitment, or our lower tolerance for risk?
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On June 12th, 100 people from science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) along with leaders in academics, entrepreneurs and investors will board BA Flight named "Ungrounded" in San Francisco bound for London. Our task: to work during the 10-hour flight in teams to create solutions for STEM education, jobs, and promote more women and international cooperation. There are four teams designated in various areas of STEM promotion. My team is the Altitude Team: promoting more women in STEM related fields.

This is a challenge created by British Airlines to let people know they are supporting innovation. There is a little twist to the team-oriented tasks, and that is one team will be chosen as winner. Now you're talking. Nothing like a little competition to get the blood flowing.

Oddly enough, thinking at altitudes that give you a view of the broad horizon is nothing new. I remember speaking to Senator Bill Bradley about all the time spent on airplanes while he was a star in the National Basketball Association, where he played for the New York Knicks. I asked him, "Does all that time in the air just get to you sometimes?" I was a bit surprised to hear him say no, that he thinks best up in the clouds. In fact, Bill said that after his illustrious career in the NBA and when he became a US Senator, he sometimes just took a cross-country flight to be away from the noise and think with clear vision and others agree, do you?

I do, and have often felt that way myself. I find that broad vistas inspire me, and maybe that's why I like the top of mountains and the view out the window from my cross-country flights, too. So, will the cross-continent Ungounded flight from San Francisco to London, brimming with thinkers and doers in innovation, produce some remarkable results?

My hope is that soaring at 37,000 ft., we will be inspired to engage in some exponential thinking, something I have lived even before I heard the term. My own career was inspired by the exponential thinker extraordinaire, Arthur C. Clarke, when he inspired me with his passion for the power of geo-synchronous orbiting satellites in the 60's. That one man's vision sparked my passion for creating program networks via satellite and cable to create what became the USA Network. Today, 36 years later, the rate of growth of technology is impacting every industry in profound ways, something I learn from my colleagues at Singularity University, the home of exponential thinking.

So where are the women in STEM? They are in short supply among the best known innovators of our time. We are all quick to name them; Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Sergei Brin and Larry Page, Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Dorsey. But where are the women? We should be here, and some are. Meg Whitman, Sheryl Sandberg, Marissa Mayer among them. Thanks to Title IX, passed in 1972, 140 women for every man enrolls in college, 57 percent of the undergraduate degrees are granted to women, 60 percent of the graduate degrees, 52 percent of the PhD's. Over the past 40 years, 42 percent of the STEM related degrees are held by women, but women comprise only 27% of the STEM workforce. What's wrong? Why the sagging disparity?

Is it the lack of STEM-related role models for women? Is it that the human capital networks in the field are still heavily populated by men? Is it women's lack of commitment, or our lower tolerance for risk? What is it? According to recent research by the Kauffman Foundation, it isn't girls lack of competency in math or science. Girls score just as well as boys in secondary schools. And how do we find the women who will excel in the competitive STEM worlds?

This is the task for the Altitude team. Kimberly Bryant, Kelly Hoey, Will Young, Cindy Padnos, and others -- to think exponentially. and figure out how legions of girls and women can be brought into the most innovative teams working in STEM on the planet. Let's think big. The time for baby steps has passed. Let's take one giant leap for womankind.

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