Mentor Programs Looking to Funnel Women Into STEM

Wal-Mart Stores executive Rita Carney and Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin both champion STEM opportunities for girls. “If you’re going to have the best ideas, you need both boys and girls in the room,” Griffin said.
Wal-Mart Stores executive Rita Carney and Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin both champion STEM opportunities for girls. “If you’re going to have the best ideas, you need both boys and girls in the room,” Griffin said.

Brenna Blackwell tells a funny story about enrolling at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville to pursue a computer engineering degree.

Blackwell, now 32, had dropped out of another university after two semesters for a variety of reasons, one of which was that she didn’t feel supported as a female student. When she enrolled at Arkansas several years later in her mid-20s, Blackwell and her husband, Hylke de Vries, met with a university administrator to discuss her plan.

“I walked into his office and my husband walked in behind me,” Blackwell said. “The [administrator] walked up to my husband and says, ‘Welcome to the engineering department. Why are you interested in our program?’

“My husband, bless his heart, said, ‘Oh, I just wanted to see what my wife is going to be doing for the next four years.’”

Blackwell can laugh about it now — and does — but the administrator’s assumption that the man was interested in pursuing a computer engineering degree illustrates a problem young women and girls still face in today’s world. The numbers bear it out: Women are approximately 50 percent of the country’s workforce, but that drops to 25 percent in STEM fields — science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Blackwell, a mobile developer at RevUnit in Bentonville, received a 2016 silver Stevie Award for Women in Business for her work as a mentor in AR Girls Code, which introduces young girls to computer coding.

“A lot of the work we do in that program is workshop-based,” Blackwell said. “The girls all volunteer to come in or are signed up by their parents, but the parents all say the girls want to be there. I do think that young girls still need encouragement and still need role models.”

Million Women Mentors

Arkansas Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin and Wal-Mart Stores executive Rita Carney couldn’t agree more on the need to encourage and support young girls and women in pursuing STEM studies.

Griffin and Carney are active in the national program Million Women Mentors, of which Wal-Mart Stores Inc. of Bentonville is the Arkansas state sponsor. The program was started in 2014 by STEMconnector, a national association in Washington, made up of corporate, governmental and private groups interested in promoting STEM education.

Carney, Wal-Mart’s vice president of technology modernization and infrastructure planning, joined as a mentor and spoke about the importance of mentors for young women at a Northwest Arkansas Tech Council luncheon earlier this month. Carney said companies with more women do better financially, but, especially in technological areas, the number of women entering the field is dropping.

“We have a challenge in really making sure we attract girls into technology; but it’s all of STEM,” Carney said. “There tends to be this turning point where girls are about to enter middle school where it is proven by facts, at that point in their lives, they tend to pull out. Some of it is peer pressure. ‘Hey, do I belong?’ ‘What do other girls do?’ Or some of them just don’t have the role models.”

Carney said Wal-Mart’s focus is providing those role models to high school-aged girls while other involved Arkansas companies concentrate on middle school girls.

Griffin said it is vital that the state generates more STEM graduates, regardless of their gender. Griffin said studies have shown that 50 percent of male high school graduates have an interest in STEM education but less than 15 percent of female graduates do.

“It is not optional; it is mandatory that we have more young people interested in STEM,” said Griffin, the father of a 9-year-old girl. “When I speak to these groups, I say No. 1, we need more STEM graduates to be competitive as a country, to be competitive as a state.

“Clearly, where we have a lot of room to grow is with young girls. If you’re going to have the best ideas, you need both boys and girls in the room providing different perspectives. The overall number of STEM grads is critically important to being competitive, and one of the areas we see the opportunity for the most growth is with young girls.”

STEMconnector said its research shows that the United States could have a shortage of 230,000 STEM employees in the next couple of years. Women in STEM fields, however, earn 92 cents for every $1 a man earns, a discrepancy less egregious as the 77 cents on a dollar that women earn overall.

“If women pursue executive and leadership roles, they surpass it; they do better than men,” Carney said. “Why? I think it’s because women are in such demand in the industry because they bring diverse thought. There’s a phenomenon going on that re-emphasizes the importance of pulling women in. It’s a game-changer.”

Keeping Options Open

Griffin said it’s not about pushing young girls into STEM but just letting them know it’s an option. He wants young girls like his daughter to make their choices from a “perspective of understanding” rather than ignorance.

It’s why Griffin has set a goal of speaking to at least one community every month this year about the importance of STEM education. He said he has noticed a “STEM synergy” developing among governmental officials, educational leaders and business and community leaders.

“You have to go to local communities and you have to get local people with skin in the game involved,” Griffin said. “Nobody knows it until you make it relevant to their communities and their lives and their opportunities. We have to keep going and keep doing.

“We just need a fraction of additional interest and it can have a massive impact.”

Stephanie Figueroa, a freshman at Northwest Arkansas Community College, was always interested in computers but didn’t know how to go about pursuing a career in that field when she entered Springdale High School. Fortunately, as a junior, Figueroa met teachers who were able to connect her with an IT academy, and now she has Carney as a mentor.

Figueroa said she always dreamed as a child of being a company leader, and Carney is a living embodiment to her that that is an attainable goal. Figueroa, who plans to pursue a degree in information systems at the University of Arkansas, is interning at Tyson Foods Inc. of Springdale and has begun to tell junior high school girls about the value and possibilities of STEM education.

“When I was in elementary school no one told me I could be an engineer or a scientist,” Figueroa said. “I love the idea that they came up with this mentoring to encourage other girls to go into a STEM field.”

Blackwell said she has noticed more and more businesses doing what they can to encourage more girls to go into STEM. The projected labor shortage has to be addressed at the front end to make sure candidates emerge.

“That’s the pipeline issue,” Blackwell said. “It’s not making sure girls are interested in the field; girls are interested in the field. It’s making sure the field isn’t so hostile that they pursue other interests. It’s keeping the pipeline flowing by encouraging their interest, showing them that this is a field for them. They belong there.”