Education is the first step to empowerment. Unfortunately, women and girls across the globe face numerous inequities. Girls in some countries are strictly prohibited from going to school, yet even in the Western world, women and girls experience barriers to equality:

“[T]here are challenges to women all across the world. In some places, it’s like more extreme… it’s early child marriages, it’s child labor, it’s sexual violence. In other parts, it’s not [as extreme], it’s unequal pay, it’s just another discrimination. So, these issues are present all around the world,” says Malala Yousafzai, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and student at Oxford University (2018). At the age of 11, Ms. Yousafzai began to blog for the BBC about human rights, namely, the rights of women and girls to receive an education. (Read BBC News Malala Yousafzai: Portrait of the girl blogger.) Yousafzai was shot by militant leaders for defying the ban on girls attending school and for spreading contrary ideas. She then moved to the United Kingdom where she has continued to use her freedom to voice the discrimination, inequality and terror that women and girls experience in parts of the world. In March of 2018, Yousafzai returned to her hometown for the first time since 2012. As a polarizing figure in Pakistan, Yousafzai’s critics have used social media in attempt to undermine her efforts for girls’ equal rights to education. However, Yousafzai says that efforts to silence her voice has actually amplified her message.

In an interview with Emma Watson–actress, gender equality activist and United Nations Goodwill Ambassador for the #HeForShe campaign–Yousafzai talks about the meaning of education: “[W]hen I think about education, I think it’s not just learning a subject or getting information, it’s about critical thinking and also allowing you to question things…whether it’s science or technology or social studies, it’s all about questioning things…and learning different perspectives and different views.” Watson and Yousafzai also discuss the misconceptions that the Western world still faces with regard to gender inequality and the important role that education plays in empowering women and girls to go after their dreams.

For example, in the United States, the gender gap in STEM-related fields remains an issue. To close the gap, schools are launching instructional programs that provide all students with equitable opportunities for STEM education. Today, more women are stepping into STEM careers, but not all professional roles are attracting women at equal rates. Moreover, a study conducted by Microsoft shows that, while many girls are interested and empowered by STEM in middle school, their interest and sense of self-efficacy wanes by young adulthood.

Closing the STEM Gap

Source: https://query.prod.cms.rt.microsoft.com/cms/api/am/binary/RE1UMWz

Researchers say that strong female role models could encourage young women to pursue and retain STEM careers. Female leaders in today’s technology industry are, in fact, advocating for more women to enter traditionally male-dominated fields and to go after positions as decision-makers. But why are young women losing interest in science, technology, engineering and math by the time they reach high school? Why aren’t more women taking prominent positions as Congressional members, Chief Executive Officers and representatives in boardrooms?

Reshma Saujani, STEM education activist for women and girls and founder of Girls Who Code, points to part of the problem. Saujani is a champion for socializing young girls—not just to program computers—but to take risks. In her TEDTalk ‘Teacher Girls Bravery, Not Perfection, Saujani says, “To truly innovate, we cannot leave behind half of our population. I need each of you to tell every young woman you know to be comfortable with imperfection.” She notes that a “bravery deficit” is the reason why women are underrepresented in STEM, C-suites, boardrooms, Congress “and pretty much everywhere you look.”

STEM education is more than exposing students to skillsets. It is about changing mindsets.

In his book Failing Forward: Turning Mistakes into Stepping Stones for Success, John C. Maxwell, says that “the difference between average people and achieving people is their perception of and response to failure.” The fear of failure is a barrier that women face on the road to achieving their dreams, but in the STEM world, the fear of failure doesn’t fly. To remain hot on the heels of innovation in science, technology, engineering and math, calculated risks are required. Girls need grit, not only to find breakthroughs to tough problems but to shatter social stereotypes and misconceptions about their own capabilities. They need to develop courage and resilience as future CEOs so that they can steer their company in the face of a reputational crisis. Therefore, STEM education is more than exposing students to skillsets. It is about changing mindsets. “Design thinking,” for example, takes a human-centered approach to devising solutions to real-world problems. Rather than viewing failure with a “fixed mindset,” design thinking assumes a growth mindset: failure is part of the innovation process. Statements such as “I am not good at math” represent a fixed mindset whereas “Math is challenging for me, but I will work through it” represents a growth mindset. Stanford Professor Carol Dweck defines a growth mindset as “one that is focused on continual learning and improvement, through a willingness to try, fail and inquire.” In order to develop that mindset, students need a supportive environment (Microsoft, 2018). Design thinking is an approach that is utilized in the tech industry to address many human-centered problems. Stanford Design School offers a 90-minute virtual crash course on the design thinking methodology.

STEM careers are potentially lucrative and bursting with opportunity for innovation. With all of the technology advancements, many jobs will emerge that haven’t yet been invented. Speaking on STEM education as the way to build a brighter future for students, Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook COO and founder of LeanIn.Org states, “We need better education in this country, let’s be clear—for boys and girls. But we need to pay attention to our girls because they are behind in STEM. They are falling further behind in computer science, and those are many of the jobs in the future, and we owe our girls better. We owe that they get the same and as good educations (sic) in math and science and computer science…and importantly, to me, it means more leadership for women because at the tables where decisions are made–from our elected officials, to our town halls, to our companies—we are still outnumbered, and that needs to change.”

Sandberg is all about empowering women in the workforce, and she has the chops to do so: she has served as Chief of Staff to the U.S. Treasury Secretary, and she was formerly the Vice President at Google. Now, Sandberg is the Chief Operating Officer (COO) for the largest and most influential social network in the world–Facebook.

As a college student, Sandberg recalls that she did not understand the myriad of barriers that women would face in the professional workforce. Talented women in her graduating class had tremendous potential, but their opportunities did not always become reality. Thus, Sandberg established the “Lean In” non-profit organization and movement (along with the eponymously named book) to empower women to charge ahead and achieve their career ambitions despite social stereotypes and misconceptions. Since its inception 5 years ago, Lean In has become one of the largest communities to support women in the workforce. More than 35,000 Circles in more than 162 countries meet regularly. “In a world that too often tells women to keep quiet, stay small and know their place, Lean In Circles provide support and solidarity and urge women to take their rightful seats at many tables,” asserts Sandberg. Today, Lean In is marching forward for change internationally, including countries that have traditionally discriminated against women.

“Over the last five years, LeanIn.Org has been one piece of a mosaic of women’s organizations fighting for change around the world. I have seen the difference these efforts make in the lives of so many women, and I am determined to keep marching forward…In the final paragraphs of Lean In, I wrote, ‘The march toward true equality continues. It continues down the halls of governments, corporations, academia, hospitals, law firms, nonprofits, research labs, and every organization, large and small. We owe it to the generations that came before us and the generations that will come after to keep fighting … I look toward the world I want for all children – and my own.’”

Sheryl Sandberg, Founder of LeanIn.Org

Taking on a career in STEM is one matter whereas stepping up to take a seat as a top executive for a major tech company is an aspiration of enormous proportions. C-suite professionals—CEOs, COOs, CIOs and other high-level executive positions—are major decision-makers. As such, they assume a high level of responsibility. Take social networking services, for example:

Social media platforms are particularly powerful as they collect massive quantities of personal data from their users on a daily basis. Mobile apps and websites even integrate with Facebook or Google to enable a “social login” feature: instead of entering a username and password, people log in to various online accounts with their Facebook, Google or other social account. The ability to collect user data is of particular interest to data brokers and advertisement companies, for digital information enables them to target ads to users based on personal interests. In fact, “free” sites and services make their money by selling user data to ad companies. Facebook is the most populated social network in the world with approximately 2.2 billion monthly active users (2018). As the leader of the global market, Facebook is a dominant force in the commercial online advertisement industry. Online advertisement is big business that, on one hand, can boost the economy. On the other hand, data collection practices can intrude upon the privacy rights of individuals and even global security. Therefore, technology leaders have a responsibility to ensure that the privacy and security practices of their platforms do not allow user data to be exploited.

Source: Global social media ranking chart - https://www.statista.com/statistics/272014/global-social-networks-ranked-by-number-of-users/

Source: Global social media ranking chart – https://www.statista.com/statistics/272014/global-social-networks-ranked-by-number-of-users

Online services and platforms are constantly evolving in order to stay relevant and improve their services and revenue models, yet along with innovation comes the risk of data privacy and security issues.

Sandberg is responsible for multiple innovations at Facebook. In 2008, Sandberg stepped in as Facebook’s COO. Drawing upon her prior experience from Google, Sandberg contributed her knowledge of how to build a sophisticated advertisement business out of user data leading to new advances. For instance, Facebook allows users to interact with brands directly on their social feeds. Sponsored ads invite users to “like” their pages. Facebook has also allowed third party advertisers to merge the personal data they collected on individuals with the data that Facebook gathers from its users—meaning that companies can target their existing customers on Facebook and then collect information from their customers’ Facebook accounts such as likes, friend lists, and personal information in their profiles. The wealth of user data has helped boost business, technology enterprise and, well, and Facebook itself.

However, recent news headlines reveal that Facebook is facing public scrutiny over lack of internal controls. Data privacy and security practices of this popular social network are being called into question. Users are even skeptical about the privacy of their data on Facebook-affiliated apps such as Instagram and WhatsApp; apps that are popular among today’s youth. In fact, numerous companies and celebrities have vowed to sever ties with the service as part of the #deletefacebook movement. Cambridge Analytica, a data collection firm, had obtained personal information from millions of Facebook users–without user consent–using a personality quiz app. The personal data was then used to for political advertisements during the presidential election campaigns. In the wake of this issue, Facebook and government agencies, such as the United States Federal Trade Commission, are reviewing the social networking company’s privacy practices.

The Cambridge Analytica situation comes at a time when legislators on Capitol Hill and the European Union are demanding for more oversight with regards to commercial use of personal data. As the COO of Facebook, Sandberg is expected to respond to the crisis by meeting with policymakers, advertisers and the press. When asked if Facebook would be receptive to regulation, Sandberg responds, “We’re open to regulation. We will work with lawmakers all over the world.”

Sheryl Sandberg has also addressed the public in her own Facebook posts, knowing that subsequent comments will be critical. The idea of “failing forward” doesn’t exactly sit well with the public when open platforms like Facebook are exploited to “undermine the integrity of the electoral process” (Facebook, 2017). In her post, Sandberg admits that the situation “was a major violation of people’s trust, and I deeply regret that we didn’t do enough to deal with it. We have a responsibility to protect your data – and if we can’t, then we don’t deserve to serve you.”

In addition to matters of public trust, the Cambridge Analytica crisis is a stark reminder that “free” online services are not exactly free. Users, young and old, agree to allow companies to access their personal data—but not always. Third party apps and services may use data in compromising ways. Therefore, policymakers must continually strengthen data privacy and security regulations. Leaders of technology companies have a responsibility to ensure that they are following best practices. Users have a right to know what types of data will be collected and how it will be used. Data mining is part of a digital society and economy, yet without the proper safeguards and precautions, user data can be exploited. As it has been said, “Whosoever owns the data rules the world.”

Since the public outcry, Facebook has announced a number of changes that limit the amount of user information shared with companies that collect and sell user data to third parties. For instance, although Facebook will still allow user targeting, advertisers will only be able to use the data that “they have the rights, permissions and lawful basis to use.” (Chaykowski, 2018). The first change prevents data brokers from targeting users for ads based on their shopping purchases. The second change puts an end to offering anonymized user data to brokers that use the data to evaluate the success of their ad campaigns. Another change that Facebook announced is that developers will have limited access to user data when people use Facebook to login to apps. Developers will need approval from users and a contract with Facebook in order to gain access to users’ posts or private information.

Sheryl Sandberg also shared a Facebook post about the new privacy tools for users to control their personal data.

Facing the future of STEM to address the gender gap requires taking a hard look at numerous challenges and opportunities: the technology industry is booming. Skilled workers are in high demand, and those leading the charge are at the forefront of innovation. Nevertheless, whether an online service or platform is for commercial or educational purposes, data privacy and security are of utmost importance.

Thus, leaders of major tech companies are engaged in a balancing act between lucrative business, privacy regulations and public trust with regard to massive amounts of personal data.

How might more women and girls be encouraged to enter STEM careers and become high-level executives to safeguard data privacy and security?

Education is the first step to empowerment. To reiterate what Yousafzai said, education is about critical thinking “and also allowing you to question things…” Critical thinking is crucial in STEM careers. Qualities such as grit, resilience, and a willingness to take calculated risks are also important. In a digital economy and society, policymakers and leaders of technology companies have to answer “hard questions.” As future executives, politicians and agents of social change, students must be given the opportunity to “question things” through inquiry, research and design thinking. STEM education is about empowerment and a key component to bridging the gender gap, but equitable access to STEM education is more than teaching computer skills. It’s about addressing the misconceptions, social stereotypes, discrimination and self-imposed barriers. It’s about giving students, women and girls, the opportunity to develop the mindsets and dispositions to address real-world problems in a technology-based society; to become 21st-century leaders that safeguard the privacy rights of students and citizens; to charge ahead in their chosen careers with supporting influences.