06/19/2013 08:13 EDT | Updated 08/19/2013 05:12 EDT

Why Women Avoid STEM Careers

By Elaine Kunda, Founder, By Wallace Inc., Advisor to G(irls)20 Summit & Women of Influence, McMaster Alumni Association Board of Directors

I'm not sure if I'm a product of my environment or not. I excelled in math early on in life; in fact, at age 4, I would relentlessly follow my mother around the house requesting that she write out pages and pages of addition and subtraction questions for me to do.

I also remember quite vividly asking my JR Kindergarten teacher (her name I don't remember), to do the same during playtime, and being openly offended when she used illustrations of apples beside the numbers. "I can add 5+7 in my head, Miss Whatever Your Name Was. I do not need apples to count!"

By 8th grade, I became a proud member of my middle school math "team" (yes my teammates were mostly boys). Unfortunately that's where my math career came to an abrupt end. Was it boys, sports, peer pressure or my lack of exposure or encouragment that turned me off math in 9th grade? I'm pretty sure, it wasn't aptitude, because to this day I am quite astute with numbers, despite having an Arts degree. I liked numbers, a lot. I still like numbers. They tell a story. They don't lie.

It's not that I regret the choices (and mistakes) that I have made in my life, it's more that I seek the truth, the correct answer. I know my story is not unique (except perhaps my disdain for apple illustrations) and I feel it important to figure out the answer to the regularly asked question, "why aren't more girls enrolled in S.T.E.M (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) programs and jobs"?

Fortuitously, my involvement with the G(irls)20 Summit and McMaster University Alumni Board provided me the opportunity to ask this very question and seek some answers.

So I, along with couple of awesome women from the Mac Engineering Department and a film crew, set out on the campus to speak with female faculty members and students. We wanted our summit delegates, who would soon be meeting in Russia, to be equipped with answers, solid information and ideas when making suggestions to G20 leaders on economic reform for women.

Well, the mini documentary turned out quite well (you can watch it here) and we learned a couple of key insights that I will summarize for you. Women, do excel in engineering programs when they are in them, they often avoid it because of lack of exposure and understanding of what engineering is (it's not only about hard hats and building bridges) and if women don't start focusing on STEM education and careers the current gender gap will persist, as STEM jobs are the fastest growing sector in North America.

There are many gender challenges that we face on this planet, centuries of tradition and religious beliefs prove to make biases, and repression, difficult to change. But, getting more women to like numbers, science and engineering, really is an imaginable shift, and one that can be accomplished in short order. Girls can code, they can add without apple illustrations and they can change the world, one invention at a time. Let's remember to tell them that.

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