by Jennifer Bartkowski, CEO of Girl Scouts of North Texas
North Texas is growing. Whether it is the tax structure, the low cost of living, healthy schools, or the space for expansion, the North Texas community is becoming a popular destination for major employers. Companies like Toyota recognize the possibilities in our communit ny but for us to meet their needs, we are going to have to take a hard look at our workforce and ensure that the pipeline of future leaders – especially in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math – is ready to meet the coming demand.
As the CEO of Girl Scouts of Northeast Texas, I constantly hear from technology and engineering companies who want and need to hire women to diversify their workforce and their leadership team, yet can’t find qualified candidates to fill their open positions. They recognize that they are not accessing the full pipeline of future workers – women are still woefully underrepresented in key STEM professions, especially engineering, physics and computer science. I am asked what they have to do to increase that pipeline of female engineers and scientists in the next 10 years as filling those positions becomes a crisis.
I tell them that they must invest in girls. To increase the representation of women in key STEM careers, and access a largely untapped labor pool, focusing on how we teach STEM in the classroom is just not enough. We are fortunate to have great schools in North Texas and school leaders who are providing academic challenges to our students. However, I argue that to increase our STEM workforce in North Texas, we need to focus on attracting young girls to STEM careers. Doing that will require more than just good schools – to keep girls engaged long-term, we must invest in the whole girl – her academics, her opportunities and her leadership skills.
In 2012, the Girl Scout Research Institute published a study called Generation STEM. It found that 74% of teen girls are interested in the field of STEM and STEM subjects. A full 81% of those interested in STEM are interested in a STEM career, yet just 13% of those say it is their first choice. It is that gap that defines how we best encourage girls to pursue careers in STEM and ultimately fill that workforce pipeline.
The fact is girls can’t be what they can’t see. If women are underrepresented in STEM careers today, young girls, and especially young girls from diverse populations, have likely never seen someone who looks like them in a STEM profession, let alone considered a career in STEM. Girls need to see and have access to women in non-traditional STEM careers in programming, as mentors and through the media.
Research shows that youth today want leadership roles that will effect social change, and girls to an even greater extent, are motivated by altruism vs power and money. In other words, girls want to change the world with their actions and careers. Unfortunately, while girls can see how a doctor, a nurse, or teacher changes the world, it is much harder for them to connect that altruistic motive to engineering, technology or physics. Connecting those careers to their impact on society, whether that’s by making people’s lives easier, giving them access to clean water, or curing disease, will help attract women to these careers more in the future. It is all in the messaging.
Finally, a foundation of leadership skills, such as strong confidence, comfort seeking challenge, critical thinking skills, and problem solving skills, will give girls the resilience they need to pursue the challenging academics needed for STEM careers. While stats have improved slightly, research still shows that girls opt out of higher-level math classes before they even attempt them, as early as fourth grade. With confidence and less of a fear of failure and challenge, girls will be able to overcome societal pressures, hard work and peer pressure to stay engaged in these more challenging courses.
The Girl Scout environment offers this complementary experience to the academic classroom. In Girl Scouts, girls participate in STEM programming in a safe, all girl environment that allows them to step out of their comfort zone, remove all bias and deeply engage in learning. The programming is fun, hands-on, experiential and girl-led – exactly the type of environment where girls learn best. Girl Scout camp activities offer challenges that force girls to step outside of their comfort zone and once they do, they know they can do hard things in other environments too – like the classroom. Girl Scouts are also led by volunteers and mentors that can bring a new perspective to the world girls know.
This concept has led to the development of the STEM Center of Excellence in South Dallas, a living laboratory where girls can experience hands-on STEM programming. This facility provides girls the full package: a foundation in the Girl Scout Leadership Experience, including the soft skills of confidence and critical thinking, with a strong, hands-on STEM environment. While fun outweighs grades at this camp, the skills stick with the girl long after she returns to the academic environment. In the midst of a $13M capital campaign, this project in South Dallas represents the largest investment in girls in our community and will change the pipeline of future STEM leadership in our community.
To be sure, academics are an important part of the mix and the focus on improving America’s commitment and capacity to educate men and women in science, technology, engineering and math is critically important. But we know that in that academic environment, how teachers engage with students is often different based on gender. Teachers often over-estimate boys’ capabilities in math and science and underestimate girls’ capabilities. Research has shown that teachers engage more with boys around difficult STEM subjects where less discussion happens with girls. To counteract any potential bias in the school, girls need extracurricular opportunities to explore and engage in STEM.
The best of academics won’t always be enough to attract girls to the male-dominated professions in physics, engineering and computer science. Girl Scouts provides girls the social, academic and leadership foundation to prepare them for success in STEM careers.
Jennifer Bartkowski serves as the Chief Executive Officer of Girl Scouts of Northeast Texas. Ms. Bartkowski has been with GSNETX since 2009, when she joined the council as Chief Development Officer. During her tenure, GSNETX has seen significant growth in its annual and capital fundraising campaigns. When she moved into the Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer role, she added focus and innovation to new programming initiatives, mission delivery, and the Girl Scout Cookie Program for the 32-county organization. Most recently, Bartkowski has been leading a $13 million effort to transform a current 100-acre property in South Dallas into a STEM Center of Excellence for girls in Northeast Texas.
Before joining Girl Scouts in 2009, Jennifer served as the Senior Vice President of Workplace Campaigns for United Way of Metropolitan Dallas, responsible for leading an annual campaign of more than $50 million. Jennifer’s career began after receiving a Master of Public Administration, with a nonprofit management focus, at Texas A&M University. She has worked with a variety of organizations including the American Lung Association of Texas, United Way/Capital Area, private start-up Charitygift, and as an independent consultant.
In 2015, Jennifer was a participant in the Dallas Public Voices Greenhouse program. The Dallas Public Voices Greenhouse is part of a national initiative launched by The OpEd Project in partnership with leading universities and foundations to dramatically increase the public impact of our nation’s top and most diverse thinkers.
Jennifer is the mother of two children, including a Girl Scout Cadette and is the proud recipient of the Girl Scout Silver Award.
Photo Credits: all photos from Girl Scouts Summer Camps