Digital Skills | ICT4SDG | SDG5
February 13, 2020

Girls can love math, but teachers need to help them believe. Here’s why.

By Joanne Wilson, Deputy Director of ITU’s Radiocommunication Bureau

*The following article is an adapted version of my remarks this week at the United Nations Headquarters in New York for the 5th International Day of Women and Girls in Science Assembly: “Investment in Equality in Science, Technology and Innovation in the Era of Digitalization for Sustainable Development.”

Let me tell you a story.

Once upon a time, there was a little black girl in an inner-city public school in Washington, DC:  JoJo.

She was a good student and, like all children with promise, JoJo was regularly asked the question: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

In Kindergarten, she wanted to be a nun, but as the years went by, and she learned more about the world, she also thought about becoming a Park Ranger, an Astronomer, a Lawyer and so on.

But how likely was it that the little black girl in an inner-city public school would follow one of the fascinating Science, Mathematics, Technology and Engineering (STEM) fields?

According to the statistics on gender, it was not very likely.

However, what we also know is the importance of a supportive learning environment, especially during the early years of life, and that exposure to hands-on activities, practice of spatial and language skills, and equal treatment of boys and girls can help inspire girls’ interest in and desire to pursue a STEM career.

——

Luckily, JoJo had great parents and loving and progressive teachers at her schools.

In her elementary school, the teachers started a Math Club where they introduced the kids to different number systems, showed them how to have fun with mathematics, and provided the opportunity for JoJo to discover that she really liked math and was good at it. So she kept taking the most advanced math classes.

In the 11th grade, JoJo’s math teacher submitted her students’ applications to MIT’s Minority Introduction To Engineering (MITE) program. JoJo was accepted.

In the 12th grade, the Principal at JoJo’s high school opened a Calculus class for only three students, waiving the rule of establishing a dedicated class only if there were 15 or more students.

So by the time she graduated from her inner-city public high school, JoJo was ready to pursue engineering in university.  She was successful and went on to earn a Master of Science degree in electrical engineering from Stanford University.

But our story has not ended. Graduating in engineering did not assure a long or successful STEM career, not even an engineering degree from Stanford. In fact, 40% of women who earn engineering degrees never enter or pursue the profession.

Yet JoJo went on to pursue a career in Information and Communication Technology. She was a minority in the labor market. Where women held only 25% of computing jobs, 11% of engineering jobs, and only 5% of leadership positions in the technology sector as a whole.

Considering the challenges that women of color experience in their careers, JoJo was very fortunate that she had mentors and sponsors who believed in her, promoted her to managerial and director levels, and put her forward for new opportunities.

JoJo’s story is my story. But, my story is not unique. It is the story of the men and women who enter and are successful in the STEM fields.

Sometime early on, we developed a love for mathematics and science; sometime in grade school years we were introduced to STEM fields. Some teacher or teachers supported our sense of confidence that we had what it took to have a successful and fulfilling career. Some managers and corporate leaders mentored, coached and sponsored us.

_____

Today, I am the Deputy to the Director of the Radiocommunication Bureau in the International Telecommunications Union, the United Nations specialized agency for information and communication technologies. The ITU has been making progress, but more work is still needed to achieve gender parity and balance in the different sectors of the Union.

Last year, the 2019 World Radiocommunication Conference was a gathering of more than 3400 delegates representing 163 countries and 129 other entities in Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt. Women made up only 18% of the delegates participating in the conference, which was up from the meager 12% of the WRC delegates in 2000.

WRCs are hugely important conferences that shape the future of the telecommunications globally and impact the future world economy.

However, in the midst of that very important event and led by the ITU’s “Network of Women,” the WRC recognized that the limited progress toward gender equality was an equally important matter that needed to be addressed.

So, in addition to its normal decisions revising the international treaty on Radio Regulations, the conference adopted its first ever “Declaration on Promoting Gender Equality, Equity and Parity in the ITU Radiocommunication Sector.” The conference declared that ITU Member States and Sector Members:

  • Should urgently undertake active measures to increase the number of girls receiving primary and secondary education in mathematics and science that is sufficient to prepare them for undergraduate degrees in STEM fields, particularly in electrical engineering and computer science, which are critical for the development of ICT.
  • They should encourage the adoption of proven measures to increase globally the number of women pursuing academic degrees at all levels in STEM fields, particularly those related to the ICT.
  • They should substantially increase the number of scholarships and fellowships provided to women pursuing academic degrees at all levels in STEM fields, particularly in electrical engineering and computer science.
  • That by 2023, (the next WRC) Member States and Sector Members should substantially increase the number of internships, training opportunities and summer jobs available for women pursuing academic degrees in fields related to the development of ICT. And…
  • They should encourage and actively support ICT education for girls and women, and support all measures that will help prepare them for a professional career in ICT.
Global challenge

As we celebrate the 2020 International Day of Women and Girls in Science, our global challenge is to ensure that all young women have a supportive childhood and have access to experiences that will lead them to a successful academic and professional STEM careers.

I echo the call to action issued by the Gender Declaration of the WRC-19. The key to achieving gender equality in the STEM fields starts with ensuring that all our children, particularly young women, have the appropriate academic preparation and childhood experiences for them to pursue future STEM careers.

It’s been a real privilege to listen to the various speakers before me and particularly to listen to our younger delegates.

Reflecting on my own life’s experience, I must echo the message of HRH Prince Zain El-Hashemite who talked about the importance of teachers and the teaching profession. He is right!

We must recognize that they, along with parents, have a profound capacity to shape the next generation of scientists and engineers.   They influence – intentionally or unintentionally – who will pursue STEM fields.

Access to quality teachers will determine who – male or female – will be prepared to pursue STEM fields. And, to the extent education shapes the whole person, they will influence the character of the future workforce and whether it will be a more or less attractive environment where women will both collaborate and compete with their male peers.

Toward that end, we also take this opportunity to call for greater support of the grade school teachers who inspire, encourage and support girls’ dreams to become the next generation of STEM professionals.

Personally, I would like to take this opportunity to recognize my elementary school teachers who started our Math Club, and to dedicate this presentation to the loving memory of Mrs. Estelle Feeling, my 11th grade math teacher who submitted my application to the MITE program, and Mr. James Curry, my high school Principal who approved a Calculus class for only three students.

I am forever grateful to them and to all the teachers of Davis Elementary School, Kelly Miller Jr. High and HD Woodson Sr. High who shaped and set me on my path in life.

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Girls can love math, but teachers need to help them believe. Here’s why.

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