When I was growing up in the UK, attending an academically oriented all girls grammar school, it slowly began to dawn on me that girls did not have access to the same educational opportunities as boys. While my school offered a rigorous curriculum in the arts, when it came to science, resources were poor to non-existent.
We certainly had inspiring teachers in literature, (one of my English teachers regaled us with stories of Tolkien as her tutor at Oxford), but in the meantime there was a revolving door of male science teachers. I remember one particularly disastrous episode when the chemistry teacher was briefly hospitalized for sniffing the gas to see if it was indeed chlorine! I came to the conclusion that the best and brightest scientists were just not interested in teaching jobs in girls’ schools. My brother meanwhile had the opposite experience and he went on to become a physicist. Of my female contemporaries at university, only a tiny percentage studied math or science. I was left with a lingering sense of lost opportunity which has only intensified over the years.
A few decades later in California, with a daughter of my own, I met the remarkable Anita Borg. It was not long after I had created my own business producing conferences dedicated to women’s advancement, when Anita reached out to me to help produce and grow the Grace Hopper Celebration. Having the chance to work with Anita was a gift. We quickly became friends and our shared passion for advancing women led to many great conversations and impromptu brainstorming sessions on how to change the world. Anita was a kindred spirit who shared my righteous indignation on the lack of opportunities for women in STEM fields, including computer science. What struck me most was that Anita was a big picture thinker, a visionary who was fearless, fun and always ready to push boundaries and challenge the status quo. Rarely has anyone sparked my imagination to that degree. Her legacy to “think big” and take on the big issues inspires me to this day.
Some years later in 2009 an opportunity to make a difference came knocking on my door. Anne Hardy, Vice President of Technology Strategy, SAP Labs and Martin Stein, Chair, Silicon Valley Chapter of ACM, asked me to create an event for young girls that could motivate them to consider technical careers.
Together, despite concerns about funding, interest and collaboration among industry competitors, we created a conference and gave it the name: Dare 2B Digital (D2BD). http://www.dare2bdigital.org.
Why girls? Despite the fact that there are no significant gender differences in science abilities at middle school, the largest gender differences in STEM fields occur when women choose courses of study at high school and college. Girls overwhelmingly choose not to pursue STEM careers, particularly in the US. Women opt out of STEM careers at a disproportionately high rate as well. Where there is no critical mass of people “like themselves,” confronting the status quo can be too large a challenge for individual girls and women to overcome on their own.
Dare 2B Digital exposes middle- and high-school girls to the wide spectrum of career opportunities in computing. Most important, girls get rid of the stereotypes, (let’s not forget that just last year one prominent retailer in the US tried to sell a T-shirt for girls saying. “I’m too pretty to do Math”) and misconceptions they might have about what it takes to succeed and thrive in these fields. Through D2BD we aim to change the status quo by creating transformational educational programs. To succeed, we do this in collaboration with industry, parents and local schools.
To date we have run 3 very successful programs in Silicon Valley. 750 young women have gone through these programs so far with 99% saying that D2BD has increased (79%) or maintained (20%) their interest in computer science.
To my delight, the “big idea” attracted important industry support and collaboration. Each program is developed by an Advisory Committee from top tech companies such as eBay , Oracle, HP Labs, Brocade, Mozilla, IBM, SAP Labs, NetApp, Symantec, Microsoft, Cisco and Google. Industry partners ensure that the workshops and labs are age and gender-appropriate, engaging, and relevant, and that they will stimulate even the most skeptical teenage girl! Most of the instructors are women, so the young girls are exposed to positive role models. We also showcase young women interviewing successful technical women. Finally, we offer a robust program for parents: we want them encouraging their daughters to think about creative technology careers.
On August 30, 2012, Dare 2B Digital was honored on the California State Assembly floor with the passage of resolution HR34 relative to science, technology, engineering and mathematical jobs. Now it’s time to stretch again and think even bigger. So we have just submitted a major grant application to the National Science Foundation, to expand Dare 2B Digital nationally and to create an on-line library of resources, games, videos and training modules. I am on a mission to help close the gender gap in the STEM fields in general and computer science in particular.
I challenge you to envision a world in which women are equal and active participants in creating and designing technology. Step up and make your contribution. Share your enthusiasm and knowledge with young women. Let’s Dare 2 Think BIG and make Anita proud!