girl scouts STEM

Editor’s Note: Sylvia Acevedo is CEO of Girl Scouts of the USA. The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own.

One of the most enduring lessons I learned as a Girl Scout growing up in poverty in Las Cruces, New Mexico, is that once you believe you can do something and you develop the courage and confidence to persevere, you can be fearless.

When my Brownie troop leader encouraged me to earn my Science badge, I decided to try to build and launch an Estes model rocket at age 7. There was a lot of trial and error trying to overcome gravity’s grip, and I failed over and over to achieve liftoff. But I refused to give up. When I finally successfully launched the rocket into the New Mexico sky, I felt such a sense of accomplishment, and I took something so powerful away from that experience — I could do science and math, and I wanted to do more.

I started taking science and math electives in school and went on to study engineering in college. After graduating, I had the amazing opportunity to work at NASA on the Voyager 2 flyby of Jupiter and two of its moons and on the Solar Polar Solar Probe, now known as the Parker Solar Probe. I then got my master’s in systems engineering at Stanford and pursued a career in technology.

The persistence I learned in my early years as a Girl Scout came in handy as I navigated the male-dominated tech industry in the ’80s. When I was working for IBM, for example, there was a management opportunity in Latin America that I felt I was perfectly suited for: I had both the sales and marketing background and the technology background.

I went to talk to the hiring vice president, and he said, “I can’t have you in that role. You’re a woman.” When I asked him why, he said, “Well, I feel like you wouldn’t be safe — it’s very dangerous there.”

On my own, I booked a ticket and met with people from the firm in that country. When I came back, I showed him all the market research and letters of recommendation I’d gathered and said, “Look, I went there and came back and I’m ok.”

I got the job — but I had to push through the artificial barriers that stood in my way.

Things have changed a little since those days, but a troubling trend has stubbornly remained — the underrepresentation of women in STEM fields. Women are half of the current workforce but comprise 28% of STEM jobs. That’s why, as CEO of Girl Scouts, I’m committed to ensuring that the next generation of girls sees themselves as the scientists, the coders, the software developers, doctors, computer scientists and cybersecurity experts who will solve the big problems of the future.

We know that the outdated stereotype of girls not being interested in STEM is false. A 2012 study published by the Girl Scout Research Institute notes that 92% of girls sees themselves as “smart enough to have a career in STEM.” Unfortunately, research shows that girls start pulling away from these subjects starting in middle school, and there are a number of reasons why. A lack of confidence can hold them back, and teachers can have unconscious classroom bias where they don’t call on girls at the same rate as boys.

As part of Girl Scouts’ commitment to bringing STEM opportunities to more girls across the country, and to reaching them at those critical ages before they move away from STEM, we are proud to collaborate with partners like Raytheon to bring girls computer science programming and events where they can learn by doing, including the first-ever Girl Scout Cyber Challenge. This Saturday, girls in 10 cities across the United States will have the opportunity to engage in a series of challenges that expose them to crucial computer science and cybersecurity topics, such as cryptography, forensic analysis, encryption, decryption and tracking hackers. They will also have the chance to hear directly from female professionals working in the cybersecurity field.

As a country, we cannot continue to sell our girls short when it comes to offering compelling opportunities for them to explore STEM subjects. Women are half the population and, as our world is being recreated one line of code at a time, we need to ensure that they are in the rooms where important and impactful decisions are made about issues ranging from new tech product development to the security of our financial systems, our voting systems, our data systems and our national defense systems. Getting more girls into the STEM pipeline is truly a national imperative and is key to our continued competitive strength as a nation.

Girls are America’s great untapped resource. Let’s harness their power to be the STEM leaders of the future.