Perhaps you know the answer to this riddle:
A father and his son are in a car accident. The father dies instantly, and the son is taken to the nearest hospital. The doctor comes in and exclaims "I can't operate on this boy."
"Why not?" the nurse asks.
"Because he's my son," the doctor responds.
How is this possible?
I’ll admit, the first time I heard this it took me a minute to figure it out. It should have been pretty obvious that the doctor is the mom. But you’d be surprised how many people are stumped by this riddle. Why? Because growing up, Baby Boomers and Gen Xers (combined, the majority of the population) were never exposed to a lot of female doctors—there just weren’t that many, so it’s ingrained in our minds that doctors are males.
So why are there more male doctors? And for that matter, more male scientists? More male engineers? More male mathematicians? Gender studies experts will point to our upbringing and the roles we were unconsciously assigned by our family and society.
Until recently, boys were typically encouraged to study math and science, play sports, get “hands on” and get a high-paying job, while girls were encouraged to socialize, shop, cook, be “pretty” and become good moms. For toys, little boys were given erector sets, telescopes and chemistry kits. Little girls were given plush toys, dollhouses, fashion toys and miniature kitchens. Today, not much has changed except that little boys are often given computer games (which might actually stir an early interest in computers).
Also, think about how we talk to girls starting at an early age. It’s more than just calling them “princess”—check out this commercial from Verizon: Inspire Her Mind. (Parents, do you hear any familiar comments from the off-screen parents in the commercial?)
Fortunately, change is happening. Today, more and more girls are developing an interest in STEM professions, and they’re sticking with it. What’s helping is that many tech companies—including Qualcomm—are taking proactive steps to change the male-to-female ratio in STEM fields. During Qualcomm’s month-long celebration of International Women’s Day (yes, a whole month), I had the opportunity to attend and witness the Thinkabit Day for High School Girls in STEM inside the Qualcomm Thinkabit Lab.
It was a mixer of sorts—sponsored by QWISE (Qualcomm Women in Science & Engineering Employee Network), our Global Inclusion and Diversity and Government Affairs teams and our WeTech (Women Enhancing Technology) partners—for high school age girls participating in FIRST Robotics, Technovation or The National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT).
After a quick meet and greet, the girls were challenged to prepare a presentation about the organization they represented and discuss what that entity enabled them to do. They were encouraged to be as creative as possible and use the Thinkabit Lab materials to enhance their presentations. Needless to say, all three groups did great and offered a fun and insightful glimpse into the exciting projects they were a part of.
Personally, what struck me was the unwavering desire these young women showed in continuing their pursuit of a career in tech, whether it be robotics, computer science, software engineering or launching a tech startup. And what’s cool for them is that they’re already a part of an organization that supports them and provides mentorship and guidance through the challenges they face today and may face tomorrow.
After attending this event, seeing a preview of CODE: Debugging the Gender Gap and reviewing reports like those from the National Science Foundation, I can honestly say that I look at the tech world, the world for that matter, a little differently. I think a lot of the best things in life are the result of input from people with different perspectives and backgrounds. And if we leave women out of the STEM equation, we’re only shortchanging ourselves and slowing down the progress of humanity.
I don’t have the perfect solution, but I know I’ll definitely interact with my nieces a bit differently. The holiday gift list might include a set of Goldie Blox instead of another pink dress. A trip to a science museum instead of a trip to a “princess playland” (you know where I’m talking about) might be in order too. Or maybe a class about coding rather than another “basic cooking skills for kids” course. I’m not saying we force girls into STEM. I’m just saying that we at least open their eyes to it and give them the same opportunities and encouragement we've given boys for decades.