By Melissa Repko
The Dallas Morning News
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Great Q&A with Jennifer Bartkowski, chief executive of Girl Scouts of Northeast Texas who is helping to close the gender gap. From a unique camp that focuses on stem fields to special girl scout programs which foster entrepreneurship, Bartkowski is teaching girls they have everything they need to succeed.
The Dallas Morning News
At a camp with open land, cabins and rustic buildings, the Girl Scouts hope to inspire the engineers, scientists and coders of tomorrow. Girl Scouts of Northeast Texas decided to transform Camp Whispering Cedars, an aging urban camp in southern Dallas, into a place where girls learn about physics when playing on rope swings and about chemistry when they experiment in indoor labs. They can meet women scientists and engineers. They can learn about nature from a lookout tower and along a walking trail.
The effort is led by Jennifer Bartkowski, chief executive of Girl Scouts of Northeast Texas. Its aim is ambitious but simple, she said: closing the gap between men and women who pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math.
The STEM Center of Excellence opened this spring, but the campus is still under construction.
Bartkowski said she’s seen the way the programs change girls’ thinking. During one science program, fourth- and fifth-graders draw pictures of what a scientist looks like. At the program’s start, almost all of them draw male scientists, many Albert Einstein characters with crazy hair. But by the end, she said, many draw women — and portraits of themselves.
Bartkowski spoke at the newly opened center. Her answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.
Question: Tell me about the inspiration of the STEM Center. What caused you to build it?
A: We had been approached by a number of companies — Texas Instruments was one — that really were worried about the future pipeline of STEM professionals in this community and expressed concern that there was a crisis on our hands, that there weren’t enough women engineers to hire. We started to think about what do we do best, and what we do best is we open doors for girls in this community and we give girls opportunities that they don’t get anywhere else.
We picked four program areas that girls aren’t approaching on their own — STEM, financial literacy, healthy living and healthy relationships, and outdoor leadership.
STEM, in particular, has taken off because we realize we have a relationship with girls K-12 and here’s an opportunity for us to do something really special and introduce them to career opportunities that they may not know about on their own.
Question: What are some of the challenges of getting girls interested in STEM careers?
A: It’s interesting. When you talk to a girl kindergarten to fifth grade, they all love science and math, so it’s absolutely something that happens to them as they head into middle school. A couple of things happen: One, it becomes not cool to be the smart one in the group. Secondly, research shows girls tend to not feel comfortable raising their hand in the classroom. Third is research shows when girls hit middle school, they back away from hard things. Science and math can be hard. And last, when girls look at career options, they want to change the world. That’s what motivates a girl. And they don’t always connect engineering, coding, computer science to changing the world.
Question: Why do you think it’s important to close the gap between men and women in STEM careers?
A: STEM careers are some of the highest-paid careers that are out there. We also know that when women are in STEM careers, the pay gap is smaller than it is otherwise. When women go into engineering, when they go into some of these STEM careers, they are paid almost equal, if not equal, to men.
Question: What advice would you give to parents who want to encourage their daughters to consider STEM careers?
A: The first thing I’d suggest is have them join Girl Scouts. Girl Scouts provides a single-sex environment, it’s a safe place where girls can go, and they don’t have to worry about what the boys are doing. They are not distracted by all of the other things.
Parents need to understand it’s a progressive experience. Sending your daughter off to one engineering camp on an afternoon on a Friday is not going to create an engineer. It’s really something that girls have to experience over and over again throughout their educational experience.
One of the other career paths where women are not as well-represented is entrepreneurship. And when I think about entrepreneurship, I think about Girl Scout cookies as a way to teach that skill. Why is that a part of the Girl Scout program?
The Girl Scout cookie program is the largest financial literacy and entrepreneurship program in the world, and it just happens to be for girls and it happens to be for GirlScouts. Every one of our girls who sells cookies — and we have over 18,000 who do every single year — for six weeks out of the year, she owns her own business. She sets her goals. She manages her money. She answers customer questions. She deals with business ethics.
A great example of this is my own daughter. She started out as a Girl Scout Daisy, and when she was first selling cookies, she was really cute, so people bought cookies for her. Today, she’s a Girl Scout cadet and she’s going into eighth grade. She won’t even let me talk at her Girl Scout booth.
The Girl Scout cookie program, while everybody loves cookies, I think it’s underappreciated. Tell me another program at school or at church or anywhere else where a girl gets to own her own business and gets to stand in front of a customer and make an ask.
Education: Bachelor’s degree in English and political science and master’s degree in public administration from Texas A&M University
Hometown: Grew up in Austin and lives in Colleyville
Family: Has a 13-year-old daughter, Elissa, a 15-year-old son, Luke, a rescue dog named Pepper and two cats named Pickles and Sparkles