August 4, 2021
8 mins

How to Inspire More Women to Join STEM: Look Beyond the Numbers

Photo by Christina @ on Unsplash

On three consecutive Fridays that spanned June and July, I was delighted to deliver an interesting series of executive training workshops on storytelling. What was special about these Zoom workshops is the fact that the following line is the mission statement for the client: “We create and lead social change so that study and career journeys in Engineering and IT are not limited by gender.”

That’s the mission of the Women in Engineering and IT (WiEIT) Program at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS).

I admire such bold missions with a huge potential impact that transcends the immediate stakeholders and goes into the wider community and can introduce structural and sustainable societal changes. Telling a compelling story that conveys such a mission can be much more challenging, much more rewarding, and much more fun. Besides, working with ambitious and visionary people behind such a mission line can be a great learning opportunity.

One of the first new facts I learned while preparing for the workshops was that WiEIT is actually the first unit of its kind in Australia that focuses on inspiring more women to join engineering and IT fields. It plays a critical role, considering that women represent only 14.5% of senior academic roles in Australia and 31% of total STEM academics (2016 data, Department of Industry, Science, Energy, and Resources).

And since we are talking about storytelling, why not share with you the story of how we first ended up conducting these workshops?

It all started at the end of May when the WiEIT team invited me to join one of their regular WiEIT Coffee Hour sessions, and the theme for that gathering was “Eid Al Fitr.” So I thought it was perfectly timely to share with them my corona-flavoured Ramadan story ahead of this social Zoom gathering. The organizer, Lucia Bautista, loved the written story and suggested allocating a few minutes for me in the meetup to tell the story myself.

Apparently, I was so into that story that other members of WiEIT in the session loved it too! “We loved the way he engaged the audience. We were capturing every word of his story,” said Anastasiia Nazarenko, WiEIT Communications Officer

Hence, they’ve decided that it might be helpful to organize dedicated training sessions on storytelling.

I praise them for spotting that passion and skill, and for embracing the idea of leveraging storytelling within an academic and business environment. Storytelling is a term that still hasn’t been taken seriously enough by many corporations.

I ended up designing and running three workshops, one for the program management and the other two for nearly thirty participants from the higher-degree-research/postgraduate community of women at UTS.

In these workshops, the conversation focused on explaining and discussing the art and science of storytelling, and why a well-crafted story can be much more impactful in selling an idea than any other means, including presenting dry facts on PowerPoint slides.

And I went further, demonstrating a seven-step process for designing a story that sells, a process that I had personally designed and iterated over the past few years.

One of the storytelling exercises we conducted during one of the workshops

Out of all the seven steps, tips, and ideas that we’d discussed and Anastasiia captured beautifully, I’d like to shed light on one specific point, a piece that I consider central in your story mosaic.

What’s Your Big Idea?

That’s the first and most essential question I ask my clients, with the hope of hearing a crisp, clear answer.

And when I don’t get one, it can either be because they have such a big idea that they kind of struggle to capture it in words or simply because they don’t have one. The latter is not necessarily bad news. They might just not have a serious problem to solve, and all they need to do is to just keep enjoying their day!

But the former of course is the interesting scenario here — that’s where the fun is.

I define the big idea as the inspiring dream, the moving cause, the powerful belief that you are so passionate about and feel deeply committed to not only pursue but also to continuously find and connect with people who share it with you, and empower them to keep pursuing it.

Your big idea is the underlying central message you want to channel to your audience through the story. It’s that magical power that pushes you to jump out of your bed every morning full of energy and joy.

This idea is usually way bigger and deeper than the immediate output of your business. In ideal situations, business leaders can be aware of this idea and intentionally design every aspect of their business activities to orbit it. That includes their core business functions, as well as marketing, sales, customer support, human resources, and other supporting functions. But in many other cases, especially startups, the founders might not even be fully conscious about this big idea they have, they just do it.

I love how Simon Sinek explains this concept in his famous TED Talk, “Start With Why”:

When you become fully aware of your big idea, your why, and intentionally align your how and what around it, you can channel your story to your clients as a laser beam: targeted, focused, and intense. Your audience can get a very clear signal, with minimum disturbing noise.

In my own startup (01Gov) our big idea is Future Now. These two words represent our big idea, our inspiring dream, and our audacious promise to our audience, leaders of the public sector across 22 Arab states.

So, here’s my question to you: What’s your big idea that will connect with girls and women and inspire them to pursue a career in these particular fields of study, research, and business?

Could the answer be around better jobs? More personal financial independence? Better opportunities for women to contribute to economic growth? It could be, or it could be something else.

I’m not in a position to suggest an answer, but I’m definitely happy to moderate this conversation and offer some directions. How about we seek some inspiration in the story of two of my favorite female pioneers in the field of computer science and space?

Mary Jackson, the American mathematician, was at the center of the “women in STEM” news coverage recently after the NASA decision to rename its D.C. headquarters to the Mary W. Jackson NASA Headquarters after her.

Jackson made history back in 1958 after becoming NASA’s first black woman engineer, an achievement she reached after facing all kinds of challenges and barriers a black woman had to face in her scientific career nearly 100 years ago.

In one of these racist barriers, Mary had to go to court to get special permission to attend classes held at the then-segregated Hampton High School. After completing these classes, she was promoted in 1958 and became NASA’s first black woman aerospace engineer.

If you haven’t yet, I highly recommend you read “Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Who Helped Win the Space Race,which tells the story of Mary Jackson and the other two black “human computers,” Katherine Johnson and Dorothy Vaughan, and their incredible struggle against gender and racial discrimination while pursuing their dreams during the Space Race. You can also enjoy watching the movie edition of this book.

Staying with space, another personal source of great inspiration to me is Margaret Hamilton, the woman who is considered to be one of the pioneers credited with coining the term “software engineering.”

She is, however, widely known for her iconic photo from 1969, where she appears standing next to a stack of program listings from the Apollo Guidance Computer. The same program she developed with her team at MIT played a crucial role in the success of the Apollo 11 mission and averted an abort of the landing on the moon.

Here’s how Hamilton reflected on this mission and her career in her own words:

“There was no second chance. We knew that. We took our work seriously, many of us beginning this journey while still in our 20s. Coming up with solutions and new ideas was an adventure. Dedication and commitment were a given. Mutual respect was across the board. Because software was a mystery, a black box, upper management gave us total freedom and trust. We had to find a way and we did. Looking back, we were the luckiest people in the world; there was no choice but to be pioneers ” — MIT News

(Geeky bonus: Here’s the actual source code of Apollo 11 Guidance Computer on GitHub.)

Do you feel the powerful and uplifting vibes in these two stories? Can you sense a connection with these heroines?

You might want to pause and think:

Why would a woman choose to spend years of her life fighting against a whole system of institutional racism and gender discrimination while chasing her dream of becoming a space engineer?

Why would a woman in her 20s accept a challenge with “no second chance” and then look back at that time and describe the experience with words like adventure and mystery? And proudly say that they had “no choice but to be pioneers”?

Again, it’s not my aim here to provide answers. Rather, I’m here to remind you to avoid the trap of taking the story of “women in STEM” for granted. Instead, it’s imperative to truly and genuinely understand the values, feelings, and motivations of your target audience: women and girls.

Sometimes, I personally find it frustrating that we still need to discuss this in 2020, seventy years after Mary Jackson had to stand before a judge asking for permission to attend math classes, but we need to keep on inspiring and supporting.

Storytelling can be a very impactful and helpful tool that we should leverage in this mission, but crafting a compelling story that connects with women and empowers them requires adopting a thoughtful process and creative process that starts with clearly defining your big idea, your why.

I believe that the stunning stories of Margaret Hamilton and Mary Jackson can offer a rich source of insights and inspiration for defining this big idea. More important, and here’s the actionable change I would like you to introduce into your business starting today: I strongly advise you to talk directly to your target audience, women and girls inside and outside your organisation. Have an authentic and open conversation with them and try to understand their values, motives, challenges, and barriers they have to deal with.

Such conversation is even more imperative when you consider the diversity among those girls and women, which makes designing your story narrative around your own beliefs and assumptions risky because it can lead you to fall into the trap of your own bias.

So, keep the conversation going with an open heart and mind and always remember to look beyond the numbers.