Megan Smith, chief technology officer for the U.S., credits her engineering career to a supportive trigonometry teacher and the school science fair—“they let us play,” she says—back in Buffalo. Ursula Burns, chairman and CEO of Xerox, credits hers to a natural affinity for math and her comfort with being, as women in the field were often perceived, “odd and alone.”
What’s the best way to get more women—and women leaders—into STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) in the future? Both women are passionate advocates for diversifying the fields and they shared their strategies for doing so at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Summit in Washington, D.C. Tuesday night.
Smith, who became the nation’s CTO a year ago, shared her four-step plan to make the fields more diverse—and overcome the media image that math, science and technology are for “white boys.”
1. Let girls “play.” Math and science should be about experimenting, and learning by doing.
2. Teach girls the history of science, and give context as to why it’s so important.
3. Genuinely encourage girls to pursue an education in STEM. (“Ask them, ‘Are you taking computer science?’” says Smith.)
4. Let girls see themselves in the STEM fields by giving examples of women already in these jobs.
Burns agreed with Smith’s points, but put particular emphasis on the need to expand society’s vision of who a technology worker is: “We need to give examples of what an engineer or scientist can look like. People never believe I’m an engineer.”
Also important, Burns says, is presenting a strong economic case for pursing the STEM fields to girls. “Most high school students have no idea how much money they can make,” she notes.
Both women are hopeful. Among the future generations of potential female scientists? Eighteen-year-old Malala Yousafzai—last year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner—whose favorite subject is physics.
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