Where Are All The Girls?

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When my niece was nine-years old, she took a golf lesson with my dad who is a golf instructor. A few weeks later when I saw her, I asked her how she liked playing golf. She said she loved it! I asked her if her school had a golf team and if she planned to try out for it. She said the high school had a golf team, but she wasn’t sure if she was allowed to try out because she saw the poster and it only had boys on it.

It took everything in my feminist-aunt-you-can-do-anything-you-want-in-this-world attitude to not give her an hour lecture on how she could not only play golf, but she could play on the Women’s PGA tour someday. I wanted to start doing financial calculations on her future college sports scholarship I expected she’d earn someday. I had to restrain myself from buying her all-new clubs, tiny little golf shoes, and taking a photo of her to make our own poster. I was ready to quit my job, get a vest with her last name printed on the back, and wear it proudly as her caddie.

After my niece’s golf future hung in the balance, I started reflecting on a speaking opportunity I had a few years ago. A local university held a Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) camp for middle schoolers, and they asked me to attend and speak about the company I worked for and my job. The camp was made up of about 50% girls and 50% boys. The following year, the university reached out to me and asked if I’d like to come back to speak again, but this time the STEM camp was for high school seniors. As I kicked-off my presentation, I noticed the room was made up of about 90% boys and 10% girls.

What happened to all the girls?

Shortly after those speaking gigs, I was having casual conversation with a colleague who asked me to name the highest level of position I’d like to achieve at my company. I answered with “Senior Vice President in IT.” It seemed like an acceptable response for an on-the-spot answer. It was aspirational yet only two-levels up from where I currently sit. The person didn’t act surprised, but they responded with, “not Enterprise CIO or even CEO?”

I had honestly never even thought about a position higher than a Senior Vice President because I had never seen a woman go higher than that at my company.

I didn’t even know I was limiting myself.

It was as if subconsciously I didn’t want to have to defend my answer if I said higher than that, so I said the unspoken socially acceptable answer. I even pride myself on being a big dreamer and a “you can do anything you want if you work hard enough for it” type of person. I was ready to endorse my nieces newfound golf hobby after one 60-minute lesson, yet I was only able to envision myself at the highest level before all the posters had boys on it.

Corporations everywhere value a diverse workforce and I’m thankful my company is the same. It’s something that is discussed every time a position becomes open. But I’m convinced that we’ve often missed our opportunities at the point in which we’re reviewing resumes. Something happened back in that STEM camp between middle school and senior year of high school. The girls fell off. They lost interest. They stopped seeing anyone like themselves in the camp. And to reverse that mindset by the time they’re an adult finishing the final edits of a resume is a difficult storyline to unravel.

Those girls from middle school through senior year of high school were asked by adults (adults like me who are guilty of this same thing), “What would you like to be someday when you grow up? Maybe a nurse or a teacher?” When boys are being asked, “What would you like to be someday when you grow up? An engineer or firefighter? Maybe even the President of the United States!”

Nursing and teaching are excellent careers; I’m simply using this as an example to point out the language we use when we talk to young girls. Being a nurse and being a teacher are professions where we often see women. Just like engineering and firefighting are professions where we often see men. From middle-school on, we start limiting their options to the stereotypical gender professional choices. Girls are left to often not even consider being an engineer. Or firefighters. Or President.

We need to start letting girls know long before they know what a resume is what is truly possible and available to them if we want to influence a company’s ability to have a gender-diverse candidate pool in the future.

I support any path a young woman wants to go – whether they want to pour their hearts into a path that is traditionally held by women, or they want to pour their hearts into a path that is traditionally held by men. What I ultimately want is for young girls to know any path, and all paths, is an option. And it will continue to be an option through their senior year of high school. And it will continue to be an option into their professional working years.

When I was younger, my dad taught me how to play golf. He told me that I didn’t need to be awesome, but I needed to be good enough that I felt confident playing someday when I worked for a large company. He said that someday all the men in the office I work for would want to go golf and I didn’t want to be left out because I’m a girl.

I now lead a team of close to 60 IT engineers. The number of women on the team is approximately 10%. I do not anticipate that as individuals retire and move to new opportunities that we will see a huge spike in female candidates for those roles for all the reasons I just shared. But perhaps my greatest impact in leading this team will be if their daughters know that they deserve a spot on that golf poster too!