One of the most-rewarding aspects of my relatively short time at the Ad Council has been getting to listen in on meetings with people unequivocally smarter than me. Witnessing colleagues, partners and issue experts problem solve in real-time is humbling, engaging and a little bit like sitting front row at a sports match.
Advertising Week 2018 offered a continuation of this theme. I was able to remove myself from my desk, hop on the seven train and attend the Ad Council’s panel “Tech not Tiaras: How Our Industry is Building Tomorrow’s STEM Workforce (and how you can help).” Ad Council Chief Campaign Development Officer Michelle Hillman moderated a conversation between four representatives of the Ad Council’s ‘She Can STEM’ campaign, Ann Rubin (VP, Corporate Marketing at IBM), Kathleen Hall (Corporate VP, Brand, Advertising and Research at Microsoft), Linda Boff (CMO at GE) and Sean Bryan (Co-Chief Creative Officer at McCann New York).
The group discussed the need for female representation in the tech industry at all levels, as well as their responsibility in fostering that representation. Each also shared the ways their respective companies are encouraging girls’ STEM participation on the ground level and at scale. Without further ado, here are a few of my biggest takeaways.
1. The lack of female representation in STEM is a global issue that supersedes business competition.
All four panelists agreed that diversity in the workplace leads to diversity in thought. From a business perspective, female involvement in STEM offers a competitive advantage and equates to better ideas and better products. The inclusion and retention of females in the STEM industry will also lead to more inclusive design–if a company wants to engineer products for the population, everyone needs to be represented at the table. Nevertheless, the panelists encouraged audience members to think more broadly. We can’t expect to cure disease or alleviate problems like climate change without 50% of the population present.
Microsoft’s Kathleen Hall made an excellent point in emphasizing that girls are now of the generation that they believe they can change the world. But if you ask them how they’ll do so many respond by saying something along the lines of, “I’ll start a blog, host a bake sale or fund raise.” The issue is then no longer about instilling girls with confidence in their abilities, but re-framing the role they see for themselves in solving the world’s biggest science, technology, engineering and math-based problems. Much of the onus on the STEM and advertising industries is to instill the belief in girls that they can play more than a supporting role. Girls need to see that they can become the person doing the research or building the rocket.
2. The more personal the story, the more it resonates.
So how do we change the way girls perceive their role in STEM? A logical place to start is with role models and mentors. If girls see females in STEM jobs they might not have previously conceived of or considered for themselves, a change in mindset can start.
The panelists expanded on this point by saying that seeing a female engineer at IBM or a female CTO at GE can be inspiring but it can also still be intimidating or difficult to relate to. One marketing solve is to adopt the perspective of the target audience and show role models in a way that’s humanizing. Though girls may relate somewhat to a distinguished female mentor in STEM, they’re likely to relate even more to an image of that person at their age. The takeaway? Personal stories that reflect the current age or life stage of audiences can be even more powerful than those that are inspirational because the position of the person doesn’t appear so out of reach.
3. Focus on the application of STEM skills.
Michelle concluded the panel by asking the question, “What would you say to a young girl interested in a STEM profession.” Ann Rubin of IBM encouraged girls to think about the application of the concepts they’re learning in math and science classes, especially during points of frustration. She emphasized that girls should focus on what math and science skills can one day allow them to do. Linda Boff of GE echoed the sentiment in saying that there are many ways into the STEM industry and all different kinds of STEM jobs. Kathleen Hall closed the panel by simply saying, “Let nothing stop you,” a lesson all of us can apply.