MORE than two decades ago, when I moved from Beijing to Seattle to get my bachelor’s degree at the University of Washington, I was one of only a handful of women in the electrical engineering program. At my first job as an engineer at Microsoft, I remember a time when I was the only woman on the second floor of Building 4 on the Microsoft campus, where more than 100 people worked.
Those numbers have changed for the better, and we have celebrated the promotion of high-profile women to chief-executive positions at tech companies, such as Hewlett-Packard’s Meg Whitman and Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer. But overall, the number of women remains less than stellar in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education and careers.
As Washington state focuses on getting more students to study STEM disciplines to prepare them for future jobs, we need to pay special attention to getting girls into those fields so we can have a shot at correcting gender imbalance in technology careers. As someone who has lived and worked in two of the world’s largest economies, I have seen distinct patterns.
In Asia, academic excellence is not only expected but perceived as cool. Many girls enjoy a strong start in STEM education in schools and universities, but are slowed down later in life by societal pressures to prioritize family over professional advancement.
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Back home, in classrooms across the United States, that drop-off occurs much sooner and has a domino effect — quite simply, fewer girls choose to study in disciplines where they are the minority.
Strong female role models, who can help young women discover their inner-geek cool, are important at this age. Those of us who have walked this path should mentor girls to show them the careers possible in the world of science and technology. Strong support by technology companies through scholarships and internships is also critical to building and sustaining momentum.
Getting girls to choose a STEM education is only half the problem; keeping them in the field is the other half. A technology career can be an isolating experience for a young woman. Strong female mentors and peer-group networks are hard to come by.
On my own journey to senior executive ranks within Microsoft, I have had to find internal champions who advocated for my growth in a way that accommodated my personal needs.
For example, I asked to be part of Microsoft’s earliest pilots in reduced work schedules when my son was a baby. When he grew up, I negotiated a reassignment to China for two years to expose him to his cultural heritage.
A good starting point is to learn to ask for what you need personally in order to do a great job professionally. Not only does this bring down barriers for other women in the workplace but, more importantly, it helps build a knowledge base of successful ways to address these life scenarios.
As we look to change the conversation, and numbers, of women in technology, it is important to remember that long before employers ever interview women, you and I see them — in our living rooms, classrooms, science-fair competitions, scholarship applications, workplace interns.
It’s the girl who is a gadget fan but has never dreamed that she could build one herself. It’s the college student who wants to declare a major in computer science at a small-town university but hesitates over being the only woman in a class.
By showing them what’s possible, we can all work to change the equation, one girl at a time.
Julia Liuson is a corporate vice president in Microsoft’s Developer Tools business. She has worked at Microsoft for 20 years.