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GM’s Alicia Boler-Davis on encouraging girls to pursue STEM careers

General Motor’s Alicia Boler-Davis stepped into a new role two weeks ago at the automaker as the senior vice president of global connected consumer experience, a role for which she was handpicked by CEO Mary Barra.

Boler-Davis has been with GM (GM) for over 10 years and has moved from overseeing factory production into the top ranks–and much of the credit belongs to her older sister who modeled an early love of math and science.

Speaking at the Fortune Most Powerful Women Next Gen Summit on Wednesday, Boler-Davis recalled a time when her sister, who wanted to be a brain surgeon, even went so far as to bring home a cat brain in a plastic bag from her middle school science dissection lesson.

“I always tried to emulate what she did,” Boler-Davis said. “I like to fix things. In fact, I used to break things to put them back together. Someone told me that engineers did that.”

It clicked. Boler-Davis went on to pursue a degree in chemical engineering, moving from the pharmaceutical and food industries eventually to GM.

Now with two sons, ages 9 and 12, of her own, she’s seeing how children in the classroom take to math and science today.

“At the elementary level, girls are just as strong and capable in math and science areas,” she said. “Something happens in middle school, that’s the critical point.”

The divergence in aptitude is happening as girls enter the early teenage years, and it’s the critical time that we should be encouraging girls that they can do math and science as well as anyone, said Boler-Davis. There’s multiple fields where STEM skills are important, and girls should have more knowledge around how these skills can be applied later on.

“We need to tie it to ‘There’s value,'” Boler-Davis said. “The earlier you do it, the better.”

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