Celebrating our influences to inspire a new generation of women in STEM
The gender gap in STEM industries has been well documented. A 2011 survey by the Department of Commerce found that although women fill close to half of US jobs, they hold less than 25 percent of jobs in science, tech, engineering and math (STEM - or STEAM, if art is included, which it increasingly is) fields. The same survey found only one in seven engineers is a woman, only 27 percent of computer science jobs are held by women, and despite a growth in college-educated women entering the workforce, our share in the percentage of STEM careers has remained almost constant in the past decade.
Education Project Manager Amanda Clark (left) and Director of Education Lindsay Levkoff (right) work on curriculum for a pop-ups and paper electronics class with the Department of Education in June.
SparkFun has 152 total employees, 32 of which (21%) are female. We’ve made some fancy infographics based on our employees, and while we’ve increasingly added female workers since opening our doors, you can see we have a ways to go before the divide is even close to equal.
This widespread industry discrepancy is an ongoing concern, and varied theories exist on its causes. Foremost among the possible reasons for the gap are a lack of female STEM role models, continued cultural gender bias - conscious or otherwise, and a failure on the part of our education system to provide sufficient and tailored exposure to hands-on STEM learning opportunities for female K-12 students. SparkFun’s Department of Education, led by lady STEM fanatic Dr. Lindsay Levkoff, has worked frighteningly hard nationwide for the past four years to do everything they can to help integrate curriculum, classes, and hands-on STEM learning to K-12 educators, administrators and students, but for all our enthusiasm, we’re just one company.
So - how do we as a country close the gap and encourage more girls to study and stick with STEM fields throughout their education and careers? A concrete solution has yet to be implemented, but there is good news. The number of women studying in STEM fields is increasing every year, and with them, the number of female role models; Facebook’s chief operating officer and director of engineering are both women who have spoken on the gender gap issue, along with the vice president of Google, and we’ve watched as MIT grad Limor Fried founded Adafruit in 2005, went on to be the first female engineer featured on the cover of Wired, and continues to run a strong company that gives us a daily run for our money.
There are also a number of organizations devoted to efforts to close the gap. One of them, the Ada Initiative, helps host international events every year to celebrate Ada Lovelace Day on October 15. Ada Lovelace Day is about sharing stories of women — whether engineers, scientists, technologists or mathematicians — who have inspired you to become who you are today. The aim is to create new role models for girls and women in these male-dominated fields by raising the profile of other women in STEM.
Tech Stylist Dia teaches a plushbot class at SparkFun HQ in 2012.
SparkFun was invited to share our stories on Ada Lovelace Day in the hopes of showing a new generation of girls that inspiration comes from all over. I asked my women coworkers how they first became interested in science, technology, engineering or math; and who their STEM heroines are. Every female employee at SparkFun ended up here for a reason - because we’re passionate about what we do here - and over the course of this project I was happy to learn that we all have a story about how we got here and why, and at least one heroine who inspired us along the way. I have a mom who let me spend my childhood in the museum and nature preserve she worked for to thank for my love of science, and I was glad to learn I wasn’t alone. To kick things off, here’s a breakdown of who else we have to thank.
As you can see, the guidance and encouragement of a family member (mothers, sisters and female cousins were listed), were the most cited influences, although computer scientist and general bad-ass Grace Hopper singlehandedly took a significant piece of the pie. When it came to sharing personal stories about STEM exposure, it was surprising to learn that a lot of women at SparkFun were just as inspired by direct discouragement or bias as by positive guidance, and I was honored they were willing to share their experiences and spread awareness of the challenges they’ve faced. Here are a few of the many responses I received:
"One of my early memories is indicative of how things have changed. We had an annual 'science day' in grade school, where people gathered in little booths in the gym. I remember talking to one of them that had a cool solar system banner. While I was peppering him with lots of questions, our principal walked up, listened for a while, then told the volunteer that I could always be counted on to spend too much time asking 'why?'. For years I used that story to justify not taking science classes. When I started college and had to take science gen ed's, it was my husband that told me how foolish that was and that I had been asking the right question all along; 'why' is an essential in learning." — Accounting Manager Lissa Kendall
"One of my earliest technology memories is of sitting with my mom in front of my family's first computer (a Gateway 2000 P5-100XL, which we kept in the pantry). She pulled up the Gopher page of a library (she's a librarian), then told me something I never forgot - 'Right now, we're talking to a computer... in Sweden!' Computers: they connect Sweden to your pantry. I don't think there were many days where I wasn't doing something on the computer after that."
"For anyone who isn't inspired by technology, who thinks it's not for them, I want to take them by the shoulders and say, 'You could make anything! YOU COULD MAKE ANYTHING!' Is there a person alive who isn't inspired by the idea that they could make anything? " — Tech Support Guru Allison
"I think the first time I (stubbornly) decided I was going to pursue STEAM work was in middle school when I had a male teacher tell me I wasn't any good at math because I wasn't creative enough. It made me so angry that it spurred me to prove him completely and utterly wrong. After that, it was all science and math, all the way. I ended up taking Calculus 3 and worked as an intern at a microbiology lab by the time I graduated high school. I then went on to get an Applied Mathematics B.S. degree, and am now working on a Masters in Biomedical Engineering and in Applied Statistics, while lovingly hacking away on electronics."
"Women have done great things for STEAM subjects: check out Hedy Lemarr, Maria Agnesi, Sally Ride, Jane Goodall and Mary Cartwright. These were women I learned about in school and pushed me to continue pursuing my interests in STEAM subjects, even when others told me I couldn't do it. Between teaching at SparkFun and working with customers, as well as the outreach I did in high school and college, I see the amazing minds of young women already leaps and bounds ahead of me in the tech fields, working to make the world better. Unfortunately, I think there is still a lot of stigma against women being capable in these fields, which is frustrating, and is something I personally find really great that working at a place like SparkFun allows me and supports me to fight against." — Engineering QA Toni Klopfenstein
"In 2nd grade, I got to walk across the school yard to take advanced math classes with a 5th grade class. That was totally awesome. I also made a rat trap car in 6th grade that made me really interested in math and science. In 6th grade, I was told I wasn't able to take an advanced math class because there were not enough books. Apparently the school district only had four books, and all four of those books were being used by boys. It is so important that EVERYONE has equal access to STEAM technology, and I love that our company represents that. Women in STEAM fields are awesome; it is always impressive (in an HR capacity) to speak with a woman who is strong and confident in a male-dominated field. Being a woman in math, technology or science indicates that you are smart, love to press the boundaries, and are willing to work hard." — HR Manager Sallie
"The first time I was interested in STEAM was when I took apart a working iPod when I was 13, and was fascinated by the LEDs and other tiny components I didn't quite understand, but knew were vital to the operation of most electronics. My STEAM heroines generally come from comics or books. I've been fascinated with science ever since I'd first heard of Mina Harker, Jane Foster, and Dr. Ellie Sattler. These not-so-real women are incredible, brainy, self-guided women who don't need a male leadership to inspire them or keep them motivated. I wanted to be a paleontologist after watching Jurassic Park, even though it wasn't always the most glamorous job (case in point - the scene where Ellie is literally up to her elbows in poo). These ladies made science and experiments a tangible, possible future for all young girls." — Packager Danielle Sanford
"I have always been super interested in biology, human anatomy and bugs! I remember being a kid and hanging out in my backyard, cutting up bugs and 'investigating' how they work and what they are made of. I also have spent most of my life memorizing common plant names and their uses in food and medicine. These days I am an amateur beekeeper and home chef; my love for the natural world has transitioned into my favorite hobbies. My mom was a physical therapist for 25 years; talking about the natural world and especially the human body was part of everyday conversation. We probably spent too much time self-diagnosing various ailments and walking around in the woods looking at mushrooms and berries which I would inevitably ask if I could eat. Luckily, the answer was most often 'no.'" — Marketing Manager Lara B.
"Science was always the most appealing subject in school, and I was fascinated by all of the livings things in my backyard. Understanding how things work has always been the most interesting knowledge to pursue, so science was an obvious choice. Growing up our close family friends had a pretty extensive collection of skulls and other fossils in their house. They certainly got me hooked on skulls and skeletons, a fascination that continues into my own collection today. I was lucky that my high school offered anatomy and physiology, as that was probably the class that sealed the deal for my career path."
"If we take native curiosity into the 21st century, we should all be interested in how the technology that surrounds us works. We talk about finding a better balance between being a consumer and a producer and, thanks to open source/access, it's now easier than ever before to learn about these technologies without having to study them at a post-secondary level. On a broader scale, I think understanding how things function builds confidence, problem-solving and creativity. These are critical traits that young women can benefit from for the rest of their lives. Nearly all of the literature points to the fact that young women are interested in science and technology until something happens right around middle school or high school. If we can use technology and interesting applications to keep that spark alive, the world will greatly benefit from having more balanced teams to tackle the global issues. I'm excited by how much the female population has grown at SparkFun since I joined the team and, even though we have plenty more growth to achieve, I am hopeful that it's an indicator of bigger things happening all over." — Director of Education Lindsay Levkoff
"When I was younger, I would pretend that I was Gregor Mendel, and collect as many seeds as I could find. Then I logged and drew their growth. Also, I would do little genetic experiments that normally went horribly wrong (aside from food, I'm pretty sure I am responsible for thousands of plant deaths in my life). I used to get home early from school (skipping, rather), just so I could draw new inventions, Leonardo da Vinci style, and figure out how they would work. My room used to be covered in sticky notes and drawings on random topics - such as how I could develop better AI for robots specializing in sarcastic and dry humor."
"It is very important to show girls that STEAM careers are challenging, but fun. Growing up, there wasn't a focus or push in Electrical Engineering at my school or at home, so it never crossed my mind that engineering could be a career path, even though it was a big part of my own free time. I ended up going into programming and art instead (which are also part of STEAM). It is awesome some schools have FIRST Robotics clubs and show what different STEAM career options are available."
"Another reason I think it's important is to build confidence, and change the stereotypes of females in certain STEAM fields. Having more of a balance between sexes in STEAM careers might help with the misconceptions and confusion that are still awkwardly debated within these fields and the media. There are many different extreme views on this topic; for example, if you are a female in a more male-dominated field, you have the pressure of representing all females out there, and if you fail, then you're also letting other females down (I just recently heard this again listening to professional meetup talk). Even the view that a female got an ubiquitous job or is a part of a project only because of affirmative action, and that they didn't earn that spot, is often prevalent. Young children and teenagers interested in a STEAM career should be focusing on being mad scientists, or dreaming up the next revolutionary invention, not preparing themselves to deal with stigmas and stereotypes in STEAM fields." — Technical Designer Pamela "Cortez the Killer"
"As a kid I always loved computers, I think my family got our first computer when I was about 7, and I remember loving the magazine I got with games you could type out. I was too young to be able to type well and so always begged my parent to type it for me. But ever since then I've wanted to understand how computers work. That quest pretty much took me through an electrical engineering degree."
"I think it's important to society in general to have people interested in STEAM. These are the areas that make advancements that increase the quality of life; whether it's medicine or a new smart phone, these fields are changing the world. I think too often girls (and often boys) are led to believe that math and science are 'hard' and not for them. We need to stop telling kids things are too hard for them before they ever try it." — Tech Support Guru Michelle
I’m thankful to my female coworkers for their enthusiasm and willingness to share their stories for this project. If there’s anything to be taken away from such a wide-ranging catalog of personal experience, it’s that the gender gap isn’t set in stone. A disparity of women in STEM fields doesn’t need to be a given, and as the world changes, the influence of peers, teachers, family members and role models - male and female alike - will play an invaluable part in the choices of the women who will succeed us in our industries. We may not be able to singlehandedly change the education system (not that it will stop us from trying), but we can be a good influence on young students as often as possible; it only takes one person to tip the scales. We’re honored to add our voices to Ada Lovelace Day, and to the professors, scientists, coworkers, entrepreneurs, moms, engineers, sisters, friends, fictional paleontologists and Grace Hoppers who showed us what was possible - thank you.