I first understood the impact of stories from listening as a little girl to my grandmother. She would put me on her knee and share stories from her own journey — how she went from living in extreme poverty in rural Virginia to having full agency over her life.
My parents were the first in their families to graduate from high school. My grandparents never made it beyond eighth grade. Although I successfully graduated from college, I had no one in my extended family who could offer specific career advice about how to navigate my postsecondary path.
It wasn’t until 10 or 15 years later that I began to find my own way career-wise. I had just landed a consulting job to help implement market reforms in the former Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan. It was an exciting but challenging position. When I looked around the office, I saw very few women and absolutely no one else of color. It was an “Aha” moment for me. My level of education and passion for the work were what got me into the room. I knew that if I could find my way into that room, any girl, from anywhere, could get there, too.
I was determined to make the journey easier for girls coming up behind me. I thought back to my grandmother and how she was able to change the trajectory of her life. It wasn’t just the historical narrative of her stories that influenced me; it was the life lessons from those stories that inspired me and showed me the way forward. That is what convinced me that sharing life stories from hundreds of diverse and successful women would be how I could help close the “imagination gap” of what’s possible for the next generation of girls.
Young girls need role models, especially when it comes to seeing themselves succeed in fields like science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), which are still male-dominated.
Research shows that girls begin to lose interest in STEM subjects in middle school, but that they are more likely to continue exploring STEM activities, inside and outside of school, if they see role models who look like them and who are successful in STEM careers.
However, while presenting positive women role models can certainly spark a young girl’s interest in a career as an aerospace engineer, biochemist, coder or artificial intelligence engineer, seeing is only the first step to believing when it comes to getting more girls to follow through in their pursuit of STEM studies and professions.
This past June, my organization partnered with Starlight Africa to pilot the Career Girls Mobile Learning Center, to create a customized, culturally sensitive career discovery curriculum that includes African role model videos and interactive lesson plans for 100 girls (ages 10 to 17) in two Rwandan schools, Gihogwe and Acts4Rwanda.
The participating girls met on five consecutive weekends to learn how careers in information and communications technology (ICT), health science and arts, audio/video and communications can provide solutions to problems that affect Rwanda and society at large, such as poverty, world hunger, gender inequality, and a lack of access to education and healthcare. The curriculum was also developed to align with the competency-based curriculum proposed for Rwanda’s educational system as part of a United Nations’ sustainable development goal.
Teachers from the Rwandan schools relayed that the the pilot unlocked the nature of specific STEM careers.
The girls now know there are different kinds of doctors and engineers, such as computer engineers and epidemiologists, and how crucial these roles are to making their communities, and the world, healthier and safer.
Teachers also shared that many of the girls now believe that the careers covered in the curriculum are attainable, and they frequently quote the role model videos, which feature successful professional women from Africa.
Here are five lessons from Rwanda and beyond about helping to spark — and sustain — young girls’ interest in STEM careers.
- Show girls what it takes to be an effective team member at every level of an organization, from a newly graduated intern to a seasoned CEO — and every role in between. It can be inspiring to see a powerful woman leading a company from the C-Suite, but it’s equally important for young girls to connect with and learn from women at every stage of a successful and rewarding career. The deeper understanding and connection enable her to more easily map out a comprehensive blueprint for what her own professional trajectory could look like.
- Give girls the full picture. We make it a point not to talk down to girls. We ask our role models to use the same technical terms and complex concepts that they’d normally use to explain what they do, how they do it and why. We ask them to explain everything in a way that even a 10-year-old could understand it, but without omitting anything. Girls are smart and deserve the full picture.
- Turn initial interest into action. Once a girl knows that a STEM career is a possibility for them, they need guidance on setting achievable goals and developing a sound plan with concrete steps to pursue their studies and a career of their dreams.
- Prioritize soft skills and life values. Our role models share insider tips on being effective leaders and team members. Our content speaks to the importance of integrity and effectively managing others or projects in ways that nurture and move an organization forward — the true meaning of leadership. Teaching leadership, teamwork and resilience are just as important as teaching content, if not more so. They’re essential to becoming successful in a STEM career, any career and life in general.
- Create a community to keep girls supported and on track. Figuring out what you want to be when you grow up, let alone actually putting in the work to achieve your dream career, is no easy feat. Whether it’s an after-school program or a club, creating a place for girls to connect and share with one another makes the career exploration journey less daunting and more fun!
This story about middle-school girls and STEM careers was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.
Linda Calhoun is founder and executive producer of Career Girls, an organization that uses both online and offline tools to promote successful careers for young women in more than 200 countries.
Want to write your own Op-Ed?
We consider all submissions under 900 words.