"Amazing Women Needed for High Paying Careers in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM).” Now this is a message that grabs your attention. Exciting our future engineers, scientists and innovators is critical to the future of our economy, yet enticing women to these fields is falling behind.

According to various sources, including “Economics and Statistics Administration,” women are underrepresented in these high-paying, creative fields. The numbers indicate that in the U.S., women have held only 25 percent of STEM jobs over the last decade. A 2011 report by the U.S. Department of Commerce found that only one in seven engineers is a female.

I recently participated in an expert roundtable hosted by DeVry University’s Phoenix campus titled “Women in STEM Education and Careers,” where several experts from industry, academia and government addressed some of the current concerns surrounding this gender gap in STEM fields. The topic is so popular that “U.S. News & World Report” examined why, with high unemployment, there are so many STEM jobs unfilled. Employers who seek technical expertise are not finding a pool of skilled workers to employ.

So why are young girls and women not preparing themselves for these careers? During the DeVry University roundtable, the opinions were diverse. STEM education starts in kindergarten, where young girls should be exposed to hands-on engineering projects so they can see their results and are made to feel successful. Adult support from teachers, mentors and parents must eliminate the stereotype that girls “aren’t good at math” and instead stimulate their intellectual curiosity. A colleague’s daughter told me that it was “social suicide” for her to participate on a robotics team. Girls must be exposed to the types of careers available and shown that they are capable of changing the world by embracing STEM paths. Girls can be tomorrow’s leaders in top STEM companies and hold the high-paying, in-demand careers.

Overall, industry plays an important role in impacting education and preparing students for these jobs. For example, my company, Microchip Technology Inc., supports both Vex Robotics and FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology). Both of these programs inspire students to study STEM subjects through a hands-on project where teams build robots for competition. These efforts give students a complicated engineering project where, in addition to STEM, they learn about working on deadlines, budgeting, marketing, project management, and other workforce development skills. About 30 percent of the members on FIRST teams in Arizona are girls. Over the years, I have seen many of the girls gravitate toward programming and mechanical engineering as a result of this exposure. Additionally, any student on a FIRST team is eligible to apply for over $16 million in scholarships.

Girls need heroes. They need to feel they can compete and succeed and they need be shown that the path to this success is through STEM education. Many areas impact their choices and we need to work together to close the Gender Gap.

• Carol S. Popovich is the senior FIRST community relations representative at Microchip Technology Inc. in Chandler and the Arizona FIRST regional director and advisor on the Sonoran Science Academy Board. She works closely with high school and middle school robotics students throughout Arizona.

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