In Harvard Business School, Sheryl Sandberg was the only woman in her class who received a prestigious academic award, but kept it a secret. She believed school life would be easier if she wasn't identified as "the smart girl," a problem her male peers never faced, who were able to speak openly about their accolades. In her New York Times bestseller Lean In, Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook, shares her continuous struggle to cope with the lifelong pressure of being a "smart girl," which started as early as high school when she asked the yearbook club to remove her title as "most likely to succeed."

If girls aren’t encouraged to showcase their success, or are stigmatized by being good at things often considered “masculine,” it is unlikely they will pursue math and science. And they’re not. Gender disparity in the academic fields of STEM exists, and higher education student enrollment demographics prove it.

On October 29, 2014, three like-minded women working in technology discussed the importance of not just STEM education, but the academic disciplines of STEAM—Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics—for girls at the 2014 Michigan Broadband Conference.

Lisa Chambers, national executive director of TECH CORPS, said that the U.S. lacks women in STEM and STEAM in all settings. “It is happening across the board in K-12 and higher education, as well as in a corporate setting,” Chambers said, adding that school leaders must build an inclusive environment for girls, where they have a sense of belonging in STEM and STEAM education. Chambers encouraged educators to find different ways to recruit girls to STEM and STEAM. “We’ve got work to do. We know that the reality is not all sunshine and flowers,” Chambers said, “So what’s the alternative?”

Allyson Knox, director of education policy for Microsoft’s U.S. government affairs team, said the importance of STEM and STEAM education for girls isn’t so much about receiving the class instruction, but the applicability of what they learn. Knox recommended online tools to get girls and boys engaged in STEM education, like code.org and Microsoft IT Academy.

Leigh Graves Wolf, assistant professor and MAET co-director at Michigan State University (MSU), said it is critical to increase female students’ engagement on STEM and STEAM. “Technology is a core piece of communications now that itis becoming an essential skill, just like reading and writing,” Wolf said.

A panel discussion attendee who identified himself as a college computer science instructor, said he has observed a significant improvement in the number of female students over the decade he’s been teaching. “In my first year of teaching, there was only one woman in my computer science class. Now, after ten years, a third of the class is women,” the instructor said.

MSU College of Engineering has hosted the Girl Scouts STEM Demo Day for girls in grades kindergarten to 12th grade, and demonstrated various STEM experiments. Many organizations, including MSU, host events that encourage STEM and STEAM education for girls. Check out a full list of programs in Michigan Girls Collaborative Project here.

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