I'm going to let you in on what is perhaps a poorly kept secret (and frankly, sometimes a nuisance to my friends): I'm obsessed with what works. Whether mulling over a particular policy or the latest gadget, I'm constantly wondering how something works, why it works, if there's a way for it to work better and what lessons it contains. Nerdy, I know.
Thankfully, I am far from alone -- there are millions and millions of girls and women with endless curiosity about the world, asking questions that have never occurred to me and finding answers I could never imagine. Too many of them though have not had the opportunities I have been blessed with, by having terrific teachers in and out of school settings and incredible parents, who have encouraged me, challenged me, and supported me. Across gender lines, intelligence exists in equal supply. But in far too many places, opportunity does not.
Lost potential especially abounds in the asymmetrical landscape of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). In 2009, 57 percent of college students were women -- an explosion few could have imagined in 1970, when less than 27 percent of female high school graduates enrolled in college. And while we make up almost half of the American workforce, we hold less than 25 percent of STEM jobs.
Indeed, even as women have advanced in the humanities, social sciences and professional fields like law, progress in STEM subjects remains elusive. And in some areas, girls and women are even losing ground. In the mid-1980s, for example, women in the U.S. earned 36 percent of bachelor's degrees awarded in computer science, but that figure dropped to only 20 percent in 2006. Today, women also hold a disproportionately small share of the degrees in majors that strongly correlate to post-college STEM jobs such as math and engineering.
It's not only women who have lost out because of these disparities. Overall economic growth has suffered too. If women matched men's employment rates in America, GDP would rise by 5 percent, according to Booz & Company. With the U.S. Department of Commerce expecting STEM jobs to grow 17 percent between 2008 to 2018 -- compared to just 9.8 percent for non-STEM jobs -- excluding women from the pipeline hurts American companies in search of the best high-tech talent. Economic expansion hinges on both halves of the workforce receiving the tools needed to drive innovation.
Ever since my father started CGI University in 2007 to prepare the next generation of global leaders, I've seen clearly the awesome power of STEM education in the hands of young women. Every year, more than 1,000 college students gather at CGI U to forge innovative solutions to the most pressing challenges on their campuses and in communities across the world. Many of the young female innovators and change-makers focus their efforts and energies on using their STEM knowledge to solve a particular challenge, sometimes to expand STEM opportunities for others.
Just take Christine Schindler, a Duke University undergrad who emerged from CGI U last year as an engineering evangelist. Christine made a CGI U 2012 Commitment to Action pairing female engineering students at Duke with teenage girls in Durham. Working with and learning from the college students, the teenagers assemble low-cost medical devices that will be sent to partner hospitals in developing countries. Mentorship programs for girls like this, which demystify STEM, make it real and give girls confidence in their own STEM abilities, are crucial to changing the perception that careers in STEM are better suited for boys.
In 2008, Tricia Compas-Markman, who went on to earn a Master of Science in Civil and Environmental Engineering at California Polytechnic State University in 2009, received an Outstanding Commitment Award from CGI U for her now-patented invention, the DayOne Waterbag. Tricia invented the personal water treatment device -- which provides collection, treatment, transport, and storage all in one lightweight unit -- in order to prevent waterborne diseases in developing nations prone to natural disaster, such as Thailand, Nicaragua, and Haiti. For her invention, Tricia won first place in her university's Ray Scherr Business Plan Competition, the Creativity Foundation's Legacy Prize, and the Outstanding Young Person's award in Japan for social innovation. Her example inspired other students, including young woman, to imagine, to invent, to innovate -- and helped underscore why STEM is so often vital to translating ideas into solutions.
These students' STEM-inspired contributions show how empowering women -- whether in English or engineering -- benefits our world today, whether next door or on another continent. It is also vital to our future competitiveness. For the U.S. to maintain our current leadership position in the STEM fields, our universities need to produce 1 million more STEM graduates in the next decade than are currently projected. In short: No nation that wants to keep up with the future can leave an entire gender behind.
This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and the Clinton Global Initiative in recognition of the latter's CGI University meeting (April 5-7 at Washington University in St. Louis). CGI University gathers top students and youth organizations to create innovative solutions to some of the world's most pressing challenges. For more information, click here.