While it’s estimated that women make up half of the users and purchasers of technology today, there is still a massive gender gap when it comes to women working in STEM fields. Why? With over thirty years experience as a female working in the technology sector, we decided to turn to Mary Jean Schmitt, Federal Business Development Manager at NetApp for her opinions on the gender gap and how we can better support young women to strive for tech careers today. Here’s what she had to say:

GovDataDownload (GDD): Can you talk about why it is so important for young women to get involved in STEM fields today?

Mary Jean Schmitt (MJ): Young women should get involved with STEM fields today because we need our voices and our ideas heard in solving problems – like developing the next killer app or device! Women are early adopters of technology, make up more than half of the users and purchasers of technology, and we should be a part of the development process. So many aspects of our lives are impacted by science and technology, and the challenges are becoming more and more complex. Women should be at the table when technology decisions are made as they offer different perspectives to problem solving.

GDD: Why do you think women are so vastly underrepresented in STEM jobs today? Do you have any insight as to how this untapped opportunity has impacted the economy?  

MJ: At this year’s Grace Hopper Conference for Women in Computing, Melinda Gates talked about the fact that the path for women in technology is still so prescriptive; meaning young women have to take certain classes and pursue specific degrees like engineering or computer science in order to be positioned to apply for a STEM job.

The impact on the economy? Tech jobs pay well and if more women are in these jobs, this starts to change the already-ingrained gender bias in pay. Technology is a big economic driver. STEM-related jobs are growing faster than other fields, who will fill all these jobs if there are not more women in tech to help sustain this area of economic growth?

GDD: What are some of the biggest challenges you think women face today as they enter STEM fields?

MJ: I think the limited pathways noted above, stereotypes, and as a result, few role models are the biggest challenges women will face when entering STEM fields. I loved the “I look like an engineer” campaign of a few years ago, because it highlighted the fact that there are stereotypes that hamper the progress of getting younger girls and women interested in pursuing tech fields. Once in, women in tech need to stick up for each other – whether it’s supporting a point of view in a meeting, or making sure that their voices are heard and taken as seriously as their male colleagues.

GDD: What do you think is the best course of action to make young women and school aged girls aware of the possible career tracks they could pursue in STEM?

MJ: For young girls, keep taking math and science! Parents can help in simple ways, like looking for toys and games that promote interest in technology. I love the latest Legos created to build architectural masterpieces and the Women of NASA Legos.

Organizations like the Children’s Science Center offer invaluable methods for instilling an interest in STEM by making science fun for children and helping them learn through exploring and creating. Currently there is one lab located inside of Fair Oaks Mall in Northern Virginia and the organization is raising funds to build a full-scale science museum at the Kincora development in Dulles, VA.

Young girls in Scouts can take advantage of earning skills and badges in practical technology related areas. The Hour of Code is another great event every year, which includes kids from grade school on up taking part in a coding event.  Getting young girls interested at a very young age means they are more likely to grow that interest over time and possibly pursue a STEM career in the future.

Take advantage of movies and books about women in tech pioneers for inspiration – Hidden Figures is a great inspirational true story for young girls and women.  As young women move to high school, find out if your school or area has a Girls that Code group or other tech clubs. Schools have a huge role to play by using the local tech community or parents to showcase tech fields to young women as they are deciding on their career path. And most importantly, don’t think there is only ONE way to STEM related jobs. Not everyone has to be a computer programmer to be in STEM.

GDD: How can the public better support young women today who are interested in entering STEM fields?

 MJ: Female tech leaders need to do their part by being more vocal, establishing programs, and lead by example.  A great example is the Women in Tech gathering at AWS reinvent conference every year. This year the ShePowersTech session included a former model who was developing a line of wearable technology and another who had developed a program to match food banks with unused food from restaurants.

Grace Hopper Celebration 2017

Companies like NetApp can ensure that organizations like Women in Tech (WIT) are funded and promoted by management. They can support professional development for women in their firms by sending them to a conference like Grace Hopper for professional development.

Find out more about the annual Grace Hopper Celebration for Women in Tech here.