If you were alive and visited a movie theater at any time back in the mid 1980’s, you are surely familiar with the Back to the Future mega movie series. Marty McFly, Emmett “Doc” Brown, Biff, Calvin Klein…are these ringing a bell? This renowned trilogy, both entertaining and thought provoking, was ahead of its time with its time traveling Delorean. Now, while I don’t believe that time travel with an expensive sports car will ever actually happen, it really demonstrates just how much technology changes our lives.
In 1955, the year that Marty and Doc traveled “back to”, things like computers, video games and Walkmans were completely unimaginable. Now, as we approach 2015, things like big PCs, primitive game graphics and cassette tapes are laughable. Even my children have no idea what the expression “you sound like a broken record” means! Euphemisms such as that will eventually render themselves extinct.
Let’s even just go back to the 1990s – we primarily used pagers to stay in touch instead of cell phones (and the cell phones that were on the market were big and relatively expensive); we now had the Discman in place of the Walkman; and the “World Wide Web” was just beginning to evolve. The 1990’s, while a decade of massive technology growth, was still relatively primitive compared to what we have in 2014.
Could any of us have imagined the hyper-connected world we live in today? Where not having a cell phone on your person at every waking moment is seen as highly unusual? Where being able to Facetime, Skype or Lync with anyone, anywhere, anytime is possible? Where there are these bewildering “clouds” that magically store everything for us? Where social media has grossly changed how we communicate and relate forever? A world where teaching young children programming skills is becoming as important as the reading, writing and arithmetic?
I certainly couldn’t have predicted it, and when I think about what the future holds, it’s somewhat engulfing. Driverless cars? Even flying cars? Can you imagine the implications this will have on our lives? No more worries about drinking (or texting/eating/talking/applying makeup) and driving. Can this really happen? The tech gurus say “yes.” And they say “yes” to a lot more – things such as artificial uteruses (what?!), screenless displays (virtual reality), flexible electronics (foldable smart phones…wow), and cryptocurrency (central banking). These could be the realities for my grandchildren…an era where even iPods, tablets and gasoline powered cars might be ancient history; never mind the record player, tube TV and 3D glasses!
Progress in inevitable. We really have no choice but to embrace it and change with the times. I’ll check back in with you all in about 20 years – probably typing on my virtual keyboard in my self-driving car before I float out and use my Hovercraft to fly into my office building (if they even exist then!)
As a young girl growing up in the 1970s, I was often asked what I wanted to be when I “grew up.” While I’m sure I gave an array of answers (depending on my mood and who was asking me,) there are two answers that stick out the most. The first was “President of the United States”, in which I benevolently told my mother I would allow her to be the keeper of the rose garden at the White House. As one might expect, I’m fairly certain a Presidential run is not in my future…and I’m ok with that. The second career choice? I wanted to be an astronomer, or astronaut, or something that allowed me to learn all about outer space. I was fascinated with the planets and galaxies and all the matter just floating around out there. With my mother’s “guidance”, I narrowed my future superwoman title down to “Aerospace Engineer.” And that’s what I decided on at the ripe old age of 9 or 10.
I loved math. I still love math. Even at age 43, I would gladly work on a book of Algebra for fun. In high school, I did my Geometry and Trigonometry homework in classes instead of waiting to get home because it was so much fun! (I may have tuned out on an important history lesson or two -- or fifty -- but I managed to scrape by.) This was it. This little girl with the nerdy math skills was going to be an aerospace engineer and work for NASA. Done.
I will never forget the Christmas of 1983 when my father unveiled the best gift ever. If you were born after 1979, there is a good chance that what I am about to reveal will either frighten you or leave you scratching your head. A Commodore 64. Yes, that’s what I said. A Commodore 64. A fantastic complement to our Atari Game Console, which we received the year before. (You can never have enough Frogger, Pac Man and Donkey Kong, you know.)
I learned how to code in BASIC (or maybe it was Pascal or FORTRAN…I don’t really remember). I wrote simple programs and though it was the “coolest” thing ever to be able to get that huge hulky piece of machinery to do what I told it to do. I created a “quiz” about astronomy and made everyone in my family take it. Repeatedly. I had plans to create an entire computerized encyclopedia on that thing! (Two things about this are funny – 1) I’m pretty sure someone had already done that, and 2) many of you reading this don’t know what an encyclopedia is!)
Then it just stopped. I don’t remember why, exactly, but it did. What I do know is that it had something to do with Junior High School. Something happens to girls in 7th and 8th grade that appears to be almost inevitable…or is it?
Study after study has shown that girls’ self-esteem plummets around puberty. Self-worth and self-confidence become associated with how you look and act. It’s no longer about how you think and feel. The peer pressure to “fit in” and be like “the rest of the girls” sets in like a thick fog that you can’t avoid or escape. In some cases, it’s so extreme that adults (even parents and teachers!) tell girls and young women that they aren’t “smart enough.” In most cases, it’s more subtle, and while boys are encouraged to pursue education and careers in science and math, girls are just, well, taught be girls.
Sometimes girls that “act” like boys get teased. And so they stop. And they learn to “act” like girls. No wonder there are so few women in STEM Careers in the U.S. In the summer before 9th grade, I changed my mind to be a child psychologist. I followed this path all the way through college. But I never became a psychologist. In fact, after 5 years in the mental health field, I escaped it like a woman running from a burning building. I was in the wrong profession. While I am now successful and love my career as a business woman, there’s not a day that goes by that I wish I had pursued my original dream. I am one of the lost girls.
How can we, as a society, fix this problem? Fortunately, people are paying attention now, and there are hundreds of organizations that support girls and women in technology. Recently, Mindteck Academy sponsored an all-volunteer group (CoderKids Harrisburg) that teaches children ages 7-17 how to code, and especially encourages girls and minorities to join. I spoke directly to all the girls there and shared my story – and encouraged them to fight against the pressure to be “more like a girl”. All women in positions of influence needs to talk to more girls, more often. Together, we can help the future female STEM leaders of tomorrow evolve and flourish.
How can the unemployment rate float around 6% while so many jobs in the U.S. go unfilled? Doesn’t this defy the tried-and-true law of supply and demand? More and more young adults that are entering the workforce with college degrees – expensive college degrees – are struggling to find jobs. In fact, there is now more student loan debt than credit card debt in the U.S.! We are conditioned to believe that earning a college degree equals higher earnings over one’s lifetime. What’s going on here?
As eloquently stated in a recent Huffington Post article, “The stigma surrounding vocational education has been growing for decades. These programs have ostensibly become the option for those who can't make it academically… As a result, the country is facing a widening "skills gap" between those entering the workforce and the technical jobs that companies need to fill” (Yashchin, 2013).
Having worked for several years in college Career Services departments, the old catch 22 of “You need experience to get a job” and “I can’t get experience without a job” was never more prevalent than in the software development arena. Employers want someone with a college degree, because the degree quasi-guarantees critical thinking skills, among other desired traits, but they also want people who can meet their business needs immediately – employees who are specifically trained in the emerging technologies they use. So how do we accomplish this?
Removing the stigma of vocational training would be a major paradigm shift in our society – not an easy feat! However, if we can come to terms with the fact that formal education and vocational training don’t have to be mutually exclusive, we can begin to close the gap. The responsibility to achieve this sits on everyone’s shoulders – parents, teachers, government and businesses. As a society, we must invest in the vocational training that our existing and future workforce needs.