Why I didn’t pursue a STEM education, but I hope you do

In celebration of Ada Lovelace Day and her contributions to math and science, Smart Design Creative Director Anna Shaw writes an open letter to the women of the class of 2018.

It was exactly 20 years ago that I stood in your shoes. A wide-eyed college freshman, with my whole future ahead of me. And like many of you, I was undeclared. I stood at this crossroads, caught between seemingly interesting careers and the areas of study required to get there. Without much exposure to the real world, I chose an area of study that seemed interesting. Fortunately, the world of design was exploding, and I left school with practical skills that supported my trajectory to product experience consulting.

But, women, I want you to know that the vast majority of my technology clients are men. And when you get down to the functions of actually engineering the products we design and making them a reality, the number of women I encounter gets even lower. I spend a lot of time talking about how men and women think differently and about how we have different needs and desires. How can we create experiences that work for everyone if we’re not equally represented? Class of 2018, we need better diversity at the table. We need more women pursuing STEM careers.

I like to think I would have been a good engineer. After all, I am the daughter of an engineer. Like my father, I’m good at problem solving and systemic thinking. I think a lot of smart women around me would have been good engineers. Or scientists. Or technologists. You get the picture. That’s not to diminish the important roles that we did seek out. The point is, we have avoided STEM careers in droves. But we can turn this around.

Today, I want to tell you what I wish someone had told me 20 years ago: Forget what you want to study.  Yes, that’s right, forget about the school part for a minute. Instead ask yourself: what kinds of problems do you want to solve? Will you be the one to really make healthy behaviors stick? Will you help take self-driving cars to the mainstream? Do you want to design a breast pump that doesn’t suck? Figure out what you want to DO and then figure out the education you need to get there.

If you’re like me—and research shows I’m like most women in this regard—you are more motivated by real problems than abstract ones. It stands to reason that our educations become more meaningful when we’re focused on a particular problem, not abstract knowledge. I don’t care whether you think you’re good at math or not. If the problem you’re trying to solve means you need to write code, understand how machines work, or master physics, you will learn it. Because it matters to what you’re doing. You’re smart. You can do this. And you need to do this.

So today I urge young women to think about what they want their impact to be. I urge educators, mentors, parents and fellow students to open the eyes of young women. Show them the possibilities and potential for them in the world. Class of 2018 women, come to the table. I’m holding a seat for you.

Photo courtesy of Arizona State University